Food

Chesapeake Bay Oysters Farming

A Tale of Two Oysters

By
Susan
Elnicki Wade

Imagine tying up the boat on a hot August afternoon and grabbing a seat at your favorite dock bar. With a frosty drink in hand, you think about the cool pleasure of a dozen fresh oysters. You picture them nestled in their shells on a silver tray with crushed ice circled around a tiny dish of cocktail sauce. You almost smell the sprits of squeezed lemon but then you remember the saying, "Only eat oysters in months with the letter R!" Fortunately times have changed, and that old wives' tale doesn't really apply anymore. Fresh local oysters are available all year round thanks to new aquafarms that are spreading around the Chesapeake shores and breathing life into the old oyster industry.

A Paradise Lost

The wild Chesapeake Oysters was such a prolific creature that its massive reefs were navigation hazards for early explorers. Its sweet-briny flavor was an irresistible delicacy for seafood lovers around the globe.

In the heyday year of 1884, Maryland and Virginia watermen pulled in 15 million bushels of Chesapeake oysters. Some used long tongs to pluck them from the water. Others dredged the bay bottom with sharp metal baskets that scraped up everything in their path, wreaking havoc on the habitat and leaving lifeless mud in their wake.

The supply seemed endless, and the Bay appeared indestructible, but the ill-fated native oysters couldn't reproduce fast enough to compete with human consumption and gluttonous overfishing. Along came MSX and Dermo, a pair of plague-like diseases that killed millions of oysters, and the 2010 harvest plummeted to 185,245 bushels.Industrial and agricultural pollution also had their way with the Bay's wild oysters. After almost 99% of the Chesapeake oyster population was depleted, the endangered bivalve cried uncle. Government agencies and environmental groups put limits on fishing, created sanctuaries, and went after polluters, but the future of the Bay and its precious oysters was looking pretty bleak.

Hunters and Gatherers Become Farmers

A ray of hope has come from a collaboration of watermen, marine biologists, and entrepreneurs determined to save the Bay's bivalves by thinking outside the box and bucking tradition. In the 1990s, this group started developing a new method of raising oysters, which aimed to protect them and replenish their numbers ”  even if it means wild oysters have to live in cages. That's right cages.

This innovative concept is called aquaculture. Here's how it works. Rather than relying on the benevolence of Mother Nature to create favorable conditions for oysters, aquafarmers integrate science and technology into the mix. Very little is left to chance.The process begins in hatcheries, such as Horn Point Lab in Maryland and J.C. Walker Brothers in Virginia. Fertilized eggs are placed in a customized cocktail of algae and water to provide the nutrients oysters need to grow. The microscopic oyster babies swim around for two to three weeks until they're ready to move into nurseries where they continue to eat and mature. At this point, they are so small that 500 can fit in the palm of your hand.In some labs, crossbreeding takes place to create select types of oysters. For example, triploid oysters are engineered with three sets of chromosomes that leave them sterile. Without the worries of reproduction, triploids can focus all their attention on growing. Since you don't want to eat oysters during their breeding period, this genetic alteration makes them available in restaurants any time of the year.

When infant oysters, called spats, develop a gluey foot, they attach to hard surfaces like old shells or rocks. Then they're ready to head out into the water, and the magic of aquaculture starts to unfold. Instead of following the traditional method of dumping vulnerable spats into the Bay and praying they'll survive, aquafarmers provide recycled shells where oysters can take hold and place them into floating cages about the size of a coffee table. These safe cages or floats will be home until they're full grown. They float on the water, chained together in rows and hooked up to docks.

Why cages rather than free-ranging? They protect fledgling oysters from predators such as crabs, stingrays, and human poachers who are notorious for raiding protected reefs and oyster sanctuaries. Plus, aquafarmers can move the cages around to make sure they get the right amount of clean water and algae and avoid areas that are polluted or prone to disease. And farmers can take their oysters on flatbed trucks for field trips to the ocean's salty waters to increase their salinity and flavor.

A Bushel Full of Benefits

Wild oysters take two to three years to grow to the regulation three-inch market size. Aquaculture oysters only need 12 to 18 months, and they're available year round. And because they're spawned from native Chesapeake oysters, watermen don't need to import disease-resistant foreign species that could cause problems for the ecosystem.

The Bay's water quality is also reaping big rewards, because aquafarming is escalating the oyster population. In 2010, Virginia planted 76.6 million oysters in Chesapeake waters. Three oysters can clean 165 gallons of water every day that's enough to fill three whiskey barrels. Imagine what millions more of them can do.Virginia, which embraced aquaculture years before Maryland, is already seeing economic perks from this new way of producing oysters. Commonwealth hatcheries sold 2 billion oyster larvae for spat-on-shell production in 2012, according to a report by the Shellfish Growers of Virginia. About 28.1 million market-sized Virginia-farmed oysters were sold in 2012, generating $9.5 million.

With so much to gain from oyster aquaculture, one of the few remaining obstacles is acceptance of change. Generations of watermen have earned a living by tonging or dredging oysters from their boats. Converting them to this new mode of business will take some time and positive results.If you would like to visit an aquafarm along the Bay, check out the resources below. If you call in advance, most aquafarmers are pleased to show off their facilities and maybe let you sample a few oysters pulled fresh from the water.

Oyster Aqua Farm Resources

Do you want to learn more about Chesapeake Bay aquaculture or even start an oyster garden on your own dock? Then take a look at the following sites:

East Coast Shellfish Growers Association (732-349-1152, www.ecsga.org) Represents 1,000 shellfish farmers from Maine to Florida and offers info about legislation, regulation and the latest research in the field.

Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources Shellfish Aquaculture Program (877-620-8367, dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/oysters/industry/aquaculture) Get the latest news about the state's oyster restoration efforts, aquafarmingpermits, and places to pick up your own oyster cage.

Maryland Seafood (marylandseafood.org/oyster_aquaculture.html) In addition to a list of licensed oyster aquaculture facilities operating in Maryland, you can get info about Chesapeake oyster history, recipes and events.

Marylanders Grow Oysters ( 410-260-8052, oysters.maryland.gov) Launched in 2008, this program helps volunteers grow oysters in floats from their home piers and brings them to sanctuaries to increase the population.

Oyster Recovery Partnership (410-990-4970, oysterrecovery.org) Since it was established 20 years ago, ORP recycled 1,200 tons of shells that volunteers collected from local restaurants, festivals and markets, and planted almost 4 billion oysters in the Bay. It's a great place to get involved in oyster restoration efforts.

Oysters for the Bay (410-822-9143, oystersforthebay.com) This busy environmental group helps people and communities grow their own oyster gardens to help heal the Bay.

Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association (804-694-4407, oystergardener.org) If you want to start a big or small oyster farm, this site tells you where to get spat, equipment and instructions, and how to get in contact with other gardeners.

Virginia Aquaculture Oyster Growers Association (757-874-3474, virginiaoysters.org) The go-to site for Virginia's oyster aquaculture, including a list of commercial growers, restaurants, and retail stores plus a map of oyster flavors by region of the Bay.

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The beach at Fleming Villa | Source GoldenEye

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THE SPY WHO LOVED JAMAICA

James Bond Dr No Poster Credit Flickr

Our story begins in 1939, when a London journalist named Ian Fleming joined the British Navy Intelligence Service. His unit specialized in military espionage and covert plans to thwart German aggression in Europe and the Caribbean.

During World War II, Fleming was engaged in Operation GoldenEye, and in 1942 he was sent to investigate suspicions about Nazi submarines in the Caribbean. During this deployment, he became enamored with Jamaica and vowed to live there some day.

When the war was over, Fleming returned to Jamaica and bought 15 acres of plush land that was once used as a donkey racetrack. In 1945, he built a house not far from the banana port town of Oracabessa Bay, and the seaside property became Fleming’s tropical sanctuary where he could focus on writing and the discrete task of taking previously tight-held secrets into a public, fictional genre.

He named the estate GoldenEye as a tribute to his Navy service and began working on a book that evolved around the dashing spy and Special Agent 007, James Bond. This protagonist would emerge as the amalgamation of agents he’d met during his maritime service. As an avid birdwatcher, Fleming took the name for his lead character from American ornithologist James Bond, an expert on Caribbean birds, who wrote the definitive field guide, Birds of the West Indies.

Fleming’s first spy novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1952. This book and all 13 in the James Bond series were written in his bedroom at GoldenEye. Three of them — Dr. No, Live and Let Die, and The Man with the Golden Gun — take place in Jamaica.

STIR IT UP

Chris Blackwell | Credit GoldenEye

Not only did the breezy island life at GoldenEye inspire Fleming’s novels, but so did his fetching neighbor, Blanche Blackwell. She was the muse who helped spark his creative drive. The Blackwell family had lived in Jamaica since 1625, exporting bananas and coconuts and crafting a distinctive brand of rum.

Blanche’s son Chris Blackwell grew up between England and Jamaica, and in his childhood spent a good amount of time with Fleming. In 1954, after Blackwell got booted from an elite British school for rebellious behavior, he came back to the island to get involved in the family rum business. Contrary to plan, he followed his instincts and made a career choice that would dramatically alter the global music scene.

For a while, he kicked around working as the aide-de-camp to the governor and as a waterskiing instructor. But after hearing the blind pianist Lance Heywood play at the Half Moon Resort, Blackwell recorded the musician, and in 1959 he launched a music studio called Island Records. In sync with his unconventional style, it became known for discovering and nurturing innovative performers who had been shrugged off or overlooked by bigger record labels.

Island Records introduced the world outside of the Caribbean to Bob Marley and the Wailers and Jamaican reggae music, showcasing island culture and universal struggles of indigenous people. It launched British bands such as Traffic, Bad Company, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Roxy Music, King Crimson and Fairport Convention. It also cultivated artists such as Cat Stevens, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Waits and the Irish band, U2.

Throughout his success in the music industry, Blackwell remained in contact with Fleming and his projects. When the first Bond movie, Dr. No, was filmed in Jamaica in 1962, Blackwell was hired as a location scout and consulted on the soundtrack. Sir Sean Connery, whom Blackwell had met during the filming of Dr. No, remained a friend until his passing in 2020. Using a family recipe, Blackwell launched his boutique rum in 2008 that is distributed around the globe.

Live and Let Die was filmed in 1973 on the Blackwell Estate, which now includes The Fleming Villa. Scenes from the movie were shot near GoldenEye, Blackwell’s luxury hotel in Jamaica. The latest Bond flick, No Time to Die, returns to the exquisite Jamaican backdrop of GoldenEye, and the production team was treated to a supply of Blackwell Rum for inspiration while filming.

TO CELEBRATE 60 YEARS OF JAMES BOND, a special bottle of Blackwell Rum has been released, along with a new memoir by Chris Blackwell, The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond. If you’re cruising around Jamaica this winter, cue up some Bob Marley tunes, open a bottle of Blackwell’s 007 Rum, and shake it (don’t stir) with pineapple juice and ice to create the GoldenEye Cocktail. And if you’re nestled in at home in a colder climate and dreaming about the Caribbean, we suggest watching a Bond flick and warming up with the Toasted Toddy.

GoldenEye | Credit GoldenEye

GOLDENEYE COCKTAIL

INGREDIENTS:

-1 part Blackwell Rum

-1 part pineapple juice

-Lime or pineapple wedge

INSTRUCTIONS:

Shake together and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lime or pineapple wedge

Toasty Toddy | Credit GoldenEye

TOASTY TODDY

INGREDIENTS:

-3 parts Blackwell Rum

-2 teaspoons brown sugar

-1 1⁄2 parts fresh lemon juice

-6 parts boiling water

INSTRUCTIONS:

Add all ingredients to a mug, except for the water. Pour in the boiling water, Stir well to blend

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