Back in the 1920s, when I was just a lad, my mother used to send me out to pick oysters in Jackson Creek. I would put on my boots and wade into the water. There were so many oysters that I just picked them up by hand until I got a bucket full. We ate oysters for dinner about twice a week.‚ so recalls 97-year-old Deltaville resident Captain Edmond Harrow who has lived to see the once plentiful oyster supply in the Chesapeake Bay area diminish by nearly 90%. His wife Louise recalls eating oysters her waterman dad harvested where the meat was the size of her hand. Louise said in those days one oyster was a meal by itself.
Captain John Smith wrote in the 1600s the oysters were so ubiquitous that they “lay as thick as stones.” He reported that you could practically walk across the James River on the tops of oyster reefs. Even as late as the Civil War mariners reported oyster reefs so big they were a menace to navigation. At the time there seemed to be no end to the supply of oysters being harvested out of the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters were shipped to big cities where they were a delicacy for the rich and a staple for the poor. Working class bars in New York City offered free oysters with a glass of beer. Oyster bars were considered fashionable at the best hotels. In cold weather cargos of fresh oysters were shipped to ports as far a way a London. It is estimated that at one time 20 million bushels a year were harvested across the bay. Sadly oyster harvests in recent years have diminished to yields as small as 20,000 bushels. Oyster dredging and over harvesting have also played a major role in destroying the natural habit of the oyster.
The once plentiful oyster has been the victim of human sewages, waste from pets and livestock, fertilizers and auto emissions which contribute vast quantities of nitrogen to the water. The added nitrogen encourages algae booms which in turn prevents sunlight from reaching underwater grass beds. When the algae dies, decamping organisms increase and pull oxygen out of the water creating a condition called anoxia. The result is dead finfish and shellfish along with the underwater habitat that is critical to their existence.
There are two known diseases that have decimated the oyster yields in the Chesapeake Bay. MSX and Dermo are two parasites that kill oysters in their second or third years. It is known that MSX was introduced into the bay in the 1950s when a non-native oyster found it way into the bay in 1950s. This history may have contributed to the reluctance by local governments to approve the introduction of Asian oysters after extensive testing. Commercial oyster aquiculture has accomplished a great deal in their efforts to restore the oyster population by developing an oyster that is resistant to the ravages of disease and the oyster’s natural enemies. Major efforts toward developing new oyster reefs and environments that will protect and encourage oyster growth are being implemented by a host of government and private agencies under the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.
The scientists at VIMS, some dozen years ago, reached out to a small group of amateur oyster growers to help them evaluate various aquiculture methods and new strains of oysters. The appeal was enthusiastically received by a small group of amateur oyster gardeners and quickly grew to over a thousand people. This group caught the attention of folks like Jackie Partin who had planned to take a master gardening course but instead attended a meeting of oyster gardeners in Kilmarnock. The Partins were smitten and along with Leslie Bowies and Lynn Layer founded the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners (TOGA) in 1996.
Oyster gardening is not unlike vegetable gardening in that it all starts with seeds. In the case of oyster gardening the seed oysters are purchased from seed oyster nurseries. Two month old seed oysters are about one quarter to one half inch in length and come in a mesh bag. The task of the oyster gardener is to provide a mud free flowing saltwater environment with the right salinity for the seed oysters to grow to maturity. Seed oysters which are actually microscopic animal that have been allowed to “set” or attach themselves to crushed bits of gravel or broken shells.
It is the task of the gardener to watch the growth of the oysters and transfer them from the initial small mess bags in which seed oysters flourish to larger floats where they have the room and conditions to grow without the risk of being destroyed by crabs or cow nosed rays as well as above water predators like otters and raccoons. For the average oyster gardener that involves buying and maintaining floats at their own docks. Occasionally the cages need to be cleaned of accumulated algae, mud and other creatures that may have gained access to the cages.
TOGA has grown to over 400 members. Through their website www.oystergardener.org, newsletters and workshops, TOGA members provide the information needed for anyone to get involved in oyster gardening. Vic Spain had some disappointments attempting to grow oysters and gave it up. When he retired from NASA in 2005, he tried again and attended a master oyster gardener course at VIMS. Spain now teaches oyster gardening classes. There are an estimated 2000 oyster gardeners “cultivating” Virginia waters.
We asked Jackie Partin why she chose to get involved in oyster gardening as opposed to growing petunias or roses. Jackie told me: “We felt very strongly about trying to do something for the bay. The oyster gardening idea was started by faculty at VIMS who had the idea that if everybody who has a dock had a thousand oysters growing they would be filtering the water all the time. Some of them would spawn and baby oysters would be going out there into the water to settle and maybe it would help the oyster restoration. We know now that would never be enough, but at least the ones we have in the water would be filtering.” One oyster can filter 2 to 3 gallons of saltwater per hour. In a year one thousand oysters could filter tens of millions of gallons of water. Not bad for a little animal that doesn’t move around much. If there were a thousand oysters at every dock on the bay, the water would be a great deal cleaner.
Oyster gardeners generally have three motivations to become involved in oyster gardening. Firstly, it is an opportunity to experiment with the aquaculture methods and be a part of a noble effort to develop oysters that will once again flourish in the bay. As disease resistant oysters are developed by VIMS, oyster gardeners are a part of growing those new disease resistant strains. Secondly, by having lots and lots of oysters constantly filtering the water the quality of the water in the bay will be improved. Thirdly, oyster gardeners have the luxury of having a steady supply of fresh oysters grown right there at the dock in their own backyard. One oyster gardener told me he finds that having several floats of growing oysters attracts crabs to his dock and has greatly increased the number of crabs he catches at his own dock.
Veteran oyster gardener Vic Spain described the efforts of TOGA: “We have a formal meeting once a year but, have events where members show up to buy spat, build oyster floats and learn about oyster gardening. We enable members to obtain everything they need from equipment to education to make their oyster gardening possible.”
There are various types of oyster floats that have been found to be successful. The idea is to hold the animals a few inches below the surface of the water in mesh baskets made of either plastic or metal with openings large enough to allow a free flow of saltwater while keeping the oysters safe from predators and in the cages as they grow. Generally the floats utilize PVC pipe as the frame and for buoyancy. Wire mesh is used to support the oysters and a mesh cover to keep intruders out. There are several websites devoted to oyster gardening on the web. There is also a wealth of information available at: www.deq.virginia.gov/coastal/.
To raise oysters in Virginia you will need a permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) which you may obtain by calling 757.247.2254. VMRC has a website at: www.mrc.state.va.us/. Oysters may be grown in most areas, even condemned waters. Oysters grown in condemned waters can be rendered safe by moving them to clean water for a period of time when water is above 50 degrees F. Instruction for this process is also available from VMRC.
You can get started growing your oysters in a ready made Taylor float at your own dock for about $100.00 including the seed oysters. Once you have learned the basics by attending a TOGA event, all you need to do is occasionally flush the oysters then sit back and prepare to feast on your own home grown oysters. You can’t get fresher than that. We know of one oyster grower who runs an oyster roast each fall for all his friends. Raw, steamed, baked, roasted, fried or poached: home grown oysters are a special treat for those who would like to contribute to the restoration of the native oyster and help clean up the bay while enjoying some good fellowship in the process.