Legend has it that Captain John Smith, upon first seeing the Chesapeake Bay, described it as being so rich in marine life that all a crew member had to do was to put a skillet overboard to catch the evening’s dinner. Among the marine riches of the Bay was the American or Atlantic oyster. As recently as 100 years ago oyster reefs were so massive that they posed a hazard to ships. In fact, a Swiss writer by the name of Michel wrote in 1701:The abundance of oysters is incredible. There are whole banks of them so that the ships must avoid them. A sloop, which was to land us at Kingscreek, struck an oyster bed, where it had to wait about two hours for the tide. They surpass those in England by far in size, indeed they are four times as large. I often cut them in two before I could put them in my mouth.
Today, the Chesapeake is thought to support only one percent of its historic oyster population and oyster harvests are less than four percent of the harvest highs recorded as recently as the 1950s.
Hard Working Bivalves
- A single mature oyster can filter up to 55 gallons of water per day
- Oysters remove silt and sediment from the water and serve as a wonderful habitat for other marine species
- When the oyster population was thriving (83 billion oysters), they could actually filter the entire Chesapeake Bay in just 3.3 days. It now takes over 700 days to do the same thing…
- A healthy oyster population also helps other species thrive, some of which include blue crabs and rockfish, among others
- Healthy oyster populations when combined with other plantings can make for excellent shoreline stabilizers, which helps to combat erosion
To Eat or Not to Eat
On a diet? Six fried oysters = 175 calories. It’s hard to hold back: from 1990 to 1995 Americans ate about fifty million pounds of oysters; two BILLION pounds worldwide.
Oysters contain a whole raft of vitamins, including C, D, B1, B1, B2 and B3. In terms of valuable minerals, if you eat just four medium-size oysters every day, you’ll get the recommended daily allowances of calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc.
What’s Not to Love?
Archeologists have discovered that human consumption of oysters dates at least to Neanderthal times. The ancient Romans prized oysters for being aphrodisiacs. The 18th-century lover Casanova, in particular, is said to have eaten fifty oysters for breakfast every morning to make him virile. Could be true: zinc is found in oysters ~ zinc deficiency is linked to impotency. Or it could have been those rare amino acids that kept him frisky. Skeptics may leave their comments below…
What About the “R” Words?
January, February, March, April, … uh oh… September, October, November, December…
The American Indian is said to have started this warning. The meat of the oyster becomes thicker when the water temperatures cool down in the fall of the year. When oysters spawn in the warmer months they tend to become thin and not as tasty. But, thanks to aquaculture, oysters can be, and are, enjoyed twelve months of the year. Local aquaculture methods produce healthy, clean oysters by growing them up off of the bottom.
Rappahannock River Gold
“But on their own, with the most evanescent of wines, they can be delicacy itself—a lesson in the pleasure of minimalism.” Rowan Jacobsen on Rappannock River oysters in A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America
If you are passionate about oysters you know the name Rowan Jacobsen and his seven books on oysters. His website, oysterguide.com, is for the connoisseur and lists the Rappahannock as a famous oyster river for centuries—the sine qua non in oyster circles. He continues…Once upon a time, the Chesapeake Bay was the Napa Valley of oysters. Oysters flourished so thickly along its fractured coasts and warm waters that they presented a shipping hazard, and they grew plump and sweet—famously sweet. For two centuries the local oystermen ransacked it with the control and forethought people have always used with “inexhaustible” resources—which is to say, none. Today, there are virtually no more wild oysters to harvest. All the best Chesapeake oysters come from aquaculture operations in Virginia.