While in Virginia, we visited Ginger and Miller who live near the famed oyster grounds of the Rappahannock River. Several years ago, Miller introduced us to his absolutely delicious oyster stew. Miller spent 30 years as a health inspector for Virginia’s marine division, inspecting water and food quality of the Chesapeake Bay oyster beds and the associated oyster fishing industry. He knows oysters!
Miller arranged a visit to a local “shucking” house on the little Wicomico River.
Nearing our destination, the road gradually narrowed, then turned into an unpaved drive down to a white block building perched on a low bank next to the water and an assortment of wharves, equipment and boats.
Miller introduced me to Rich Harding who operates the company that his family started several generations earlier. Rich, wearing a warm long-sleeved orange shirt and suspender-supported, white PVC-coated bib commercial fishing pants stands about six feet tall. He has short dark hair and a cropped full beard and mustache with just enough grey to support the impression that he is an experienced waterman. He has bright, alert eyes, an easy smile, and relaxed body language.
Rich invited us in for a tour. Entering the door, there is an immediate rush of cool air with the distinct, but acceptable aroma of seafood. Straight ahead, a short hall leads to the shell room and the shucking area. Immediately to the left is the sorting and packing room, and Rich’s office opens into the packing area.
The Shell Room
The natural flow of oysters through the building begins in the “shell room.” This is where freshly caught oysters are delivered and held until they are moved onto the shucking room. This room is cold and damp to preserve the freshness of the oysters. Oysters are dumped on the shell room floor, and then shoveled into bushel baskets and dumped at the shuckers’ stations.
According to Rich, despite the fact that the oyster house is on the water, most wild oysters are delivered to the oyster house by truck. This house processes oysters from all over Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay area. But they also process a large quantity of oysters that they raise in their own oyster beds or that are cage or float raised.
The Shucking Room
Following the oysters, we moved into shucking room where fifteen men were busily prying the tasty mollusks from their shells. They stand on a ledge in front of a broad stainless steel counter. At each working shucking station, there is a pile of oysters, a square hole in the counter, and a stone cube, deeply worn on top. The shucker holds a fresh oyster upright with the hinge of the shell down against the stone and strikes the oyster with a heavy steel rod, about twelve inches long.
This opens the shell quickly, and allows easy access for the shucking knife. He opens the shell and slices the strong muscle that is attached to the inside of the shell. Released from its shell, the fresh oyster goes in a stainless steel container, and the shell disappears into the hole in the counter.
Rich explained that there are three ways to shuck an oyster; using the steel rod, or using only a shucking knife to either pry open the front of the shell cut the hinge of the shell. Rich says that even though striking the shell with rod adds and extra step, these workers can shuck faster than the other methods.
The Sorting, Cleaning, and Packing Room
Every few minutes, one of the shuckers would take a filled container to the packing room window. Rich says that most shuckers can earn $100 to $120 or more per day.
Back down the hall we returned to the packing area where two crews were busy cleaning, sorting, and packing fresh oysters. One crew was receiving freshly shucked oysters from the shucking room. Each shucker places a bucket of freshly shucked oysters through a large window. These oysters are weighed, cleaned, and sorted. The weight is recorded along with the shucker’s name. Each shucker is paid by the pound of oysters shucked, and everyone pays close attention to these records.
These oysters then go into large vats or tanks of circulating cold water and air for a final cleaning. The other crew dips buckets of cleaned oysters from the vats, provides one final screening for size and to remove any last bits of shell, and then packs most of them in gallon tubs for delivery to customers. Throughout the process, oysters are maintained at a constantly cool temperature—about 42 degrees F.
We exited the building through the shell room. Behind the building, the mystery of the disappearing shells was revealed. The empty shells fall out of holes in the back wall, connected to the each shucking station. A bucket loader is used to scoop up the shells and take them to the shell pile.
Near Death of the Oyster Industry – 1957 – 2000
It should be noted here, that oyster harvesting along the entire eastern seaboard suffered significantly in the past several decades. The deadly MSX disease essentially wiped out commercial oyster fishing. MSX first appeared in 1957 in the Delaware bay where it wiped out more than 90% of the harvestable oysters. MSX moved to the Chesapeake Bay in 1959. In the ensuing 35-to-45-year period, hundreds of millions of dollars of fishing revenue were lost and most oyster operations simply went out of business.
In the last decade, marine biologists have worked to develop disease resistant oysters, and have done so with remarkable, if not quick, success.
Scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), now part of the College of William and Mary, have developed progressively resistant strains of oysters. Part of the challenge is that it takes a native wild oyster about three years to reach harvest size. Working with these oysters, researchers have bred oysters that are increasingly resistant to the disease, and have been seeding oyster beds throughout Virginia’s Chesapeake basin with these disease-resistant oysters.
More importantly, they have developed a triploid oyster (i.e., it has an extra chromosome strand in each cell, whereas most creatures are diploid, meaning they have two strands of DNA in each cell). The triploid oysters (or “triploids”) are essentially immune to current common diseases.
The problem is, like many hybrids, triploids do not produce viable eggs. The advantage, however, is that these oysters retain the texture and flavor of the famed Chesapeake oysters, and they grow to market size in only 18 months. The larvae of triploid oyster must be purchased from a supplier since producing them requires cross breeding two different strains of oysters—a process that requires precise control. Oysters eggs soon hatch into free swimming larvae. These are essentially microscopic in size, and they are not strong swimmers.
Now, back to our story.
Incidentally, like any other profession or industry, the oyster industry has its own language.
To ensure an adequate supply of fresh oysters, Rich practices oyster aquaculture using two different methods. Rich begins his oyster aquaculture by purchasing the larvae. A lump of oyster larvae about the size of a golf ball will contain several million larvae. Currently, Rich purchases about five million larvae annually to seed his oyster beds and growing cages.
To develop, the larvae must attach themselves to, i.e., “strike” a piece of old oyster shell. It is here that the oyster, now called a “spat” begins to grow. It will spend the rest of its life attached to that piece of shell as it grows its own shell. After about six to eight months, the spat has grown to about the size of dime.
For Stewing Oysters
Rich buys the triploid larvae from a trusted source. Carefully measured, these larvae will be released into large tanks that contain wire baskets of oyster shells collected from the shucking process. The larvae strike onto these shells and begin to grow. Each shell in the basked may have one to several oyster larvae strike the shell. Within several weeks the spats are ready to be released “into the wild.”
Rich leases several hundred acres of river bottom for oyster beds. In 18 to 24 months, these beds will produce market size oysters that are harvested in the traditional method with oyster tongs or rakes.
Because his oyster beds are leased from the state of Virginia, Rich has complete control over the seeding and harvesting of these oysters. No one else is legally permitted to harvest these oysters.
Note: The creek is still open to fishermen and boaters—only the bottom is leased. Crab fishermen are even permitted to place crab pots on top of the oyster beds. The state marine health and safety inspectors conduct periodic tests and surveys of the water quality in the creeks to insure that the oyster harvest will be safe.
By seeding and harvesting these beds in sections, Rich can schedule profitable harvests on a regular basis. The oysters harvested from these beds are classified as “wild caught” even though they were seeded. Rich’s wild-caught oysters are more likely to end up in oyster stews or as fried or baked oysters.
For Oysters on the Half Shell
For half-shell oysters, Rich uses a more controlled process. Rather than whole oyster shells, he uses shells ground to the size of grains of table salt on which the larvae strike. Larvae are introduced into a container or “column” of sea water along with the ground shell. The larvae strike the grains of shell and begin to grow just as they would in the wild.
For oysters to thrive, they must have a constant flow of nutrient-rich water. The containers that Rich uses are open on the top with a very fine filter mesh on the bottom that allows the water to flow down through the box. The filter keeps the ground oyster shell and the spat in the box to grow, but lets the water flow through freely.
Once the spats reach the one-half inch or larger size, they are introduced into floating or suspended cages. The natural flow of water through the cages provides the essential nutrients and minerals the oysters need to grow and produce their shells. As the oysters grow and crowd their cages, some oysters are separated into empty cages. Rich sells these cage-raised oysters for select “on-the-half-shell” oysters.
In the past, oyster shells left over from shucking were piled and discarded. Today, Rich recycles his shells, largely to be used in the striking tanks for his oyster beds.
And then what?
As we left, Miller picked up two quarts of fresh oysters—we know they were fresh because they were shucked, cleaned, and sorted only an hour or two earlier. And with Miller’s culinary oyster expertise, they made a fine oyster stew.
©2014 Jeff Richmond
Oyster stew with our friends in Virginia has become part of our Thanksgiving tradition. This year, in addition to his excellent stew, Miller arranged a visit to a local oyster shucking plant. This turned out to be More than Just Shucking Oysters.
More than Just Shucking Oysters describes a recent trip to an oyster shucking plant and a quick lesson in oyster aquaculture.