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I started an oyster garden — and then ate it

The Virginia oyster is making a comeback, and small commercial growers are helping

By Paul Heltzel

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my family would watch boats work the oyster beds in front of our house on Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Like the Potomac, York, and James Rivers, the Rappahannock feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, where the commercial fishing industry planted more than a billion seed oysters and harvested from wild oyster reefs. By the 1980s, the native eastern oysters, Crassostrea virginica, were essentially gone, the victim of parasitic diseases.

Yet sometime this fall, my dad and I will drive to a farmer’s market near our Virginia home and pay about $25 for 1,000 baby oysters, called spat. I’ll get a tiny mesh bag of seed oysters that takes up no more than a quarter of a coffee cup. When we get home, they’ll go into a larger mesh bag, which goes in a yard-long plastic cage. We’ll tie the cage to a few feet of line, attach it to our dock, and throw it into the Rappahannock.

The oysters off our pier are like a snapshot of the native Virginia oyster’s comeback. Small commercial operations, taking achievable steps, are doing their part to restore a bit of nature that was lost. The state’s total oyster catch increases each year, to about 600,000 recently. That’s small compared to the ’50s, when annual catches would average 3 million to 4 million bushels, but a big improvement from the ’90s, when the oyster catch bottomed out.

We eat oysters year-round. But they’re best at a family holiday gathering, roasted on a fire pit until the heat opens each shell, revealing a plump and briny oyster. They get snatched up as fast as you can shuck them. My wife will bread and fry them, tapping a recipe she picked up from her time cooking at Commander’s Palace, an upscale Creole restaurant in New Orleans. But only after we came home to Virginia, and the oysters were functionally extinct, did we realize we could grow what we — and the bay — needed.

If you want to see why oysters are nature’s perfect cleaning crew, take your average 10-gallon aquarium tank, fill it with sea water, then drop an oyster in it. The bivalve, if left alone, will open and start feeding on algae. It will clean a green, algae-filled tank in about an hour. In the wild, a single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.

If you’re used to seeing oysters laid carefully on ice at a raw bar, one thing you probably haven’t seen is one in its natural state, which is to say, open. An open oyster out of the water may be dead and isn’t safe to eat. But in its element, an oyster cracks open its shell and gets to work. Tap the aquarium’s glass, and the shell closes quickly. The shellfish gets low marks for personality, but its defensive reflexes work just fine, thanks.

When the British explorer John Smith paddled up the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, oyster reefs were so plentiful they broke the surface: solid outcroppings made mostly of shell, with live oysters on the top. At the time, it’s thought the wild oyster population could clean the entire Chesapeake in about three days. 

“It would be totally different than what we see now,” says David Kimbro, assistant professor of environmental sciences at Northeastern University, who, after a beat, laughed at the thought of the contrast. “You’d have big bars out there that were essentially navigational hazards. You had oysters the size of footballs.”

I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever come across, but oyster gardening is dead simple: Drop, wait, eat.

Commercial watermen began planting oysters and harvesting them on the reefs in the 1800s. That continued until two parasitic diseases decimated the Chesapeake’s oyster population in the mid-1980s. The invasive MSX, which appeared in the late 1950s, was lethal to oysters. MSX’s origins in the Chesapeake aren’t certain, but it may have arrived on the hulls of warships or commercial vessels returning from the Pacific.

MSX exploded, causing catastrophic losses to aquaculture and wild oysters in the bay. At the same time, the dermo parasite, which may have always existed in the bay, evolved into a hypervigilant threat. It began to kill more than two-thirds of the oysters it targeted, where it had once killed less than a third.

The diseases were a one-two punch. MSX took out 95 percent of the oysters in the bay, and dermo adapted to attack more quickly and more lethally in this barren landscape.

Oysters form reefs because they like to attach to something, so they don’t end up in the mud or wash away. Reefs create a habitat for other sea life as well, and in the Chesapeake, they supported a healthy food web. That web has greatly diminished in their absence, Kimbro says. Without the filtering from oysters, algae build up in the bay, consuming oxygen to the point that other sea life can’t survive, creating a red tide that smothers fish in its wake. 

Today, wild Virginia oysters are creating their own resurgence in many tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. “This isn’t selective breeding happening in the cauldron of a research hatchery or a commercial hatchery,” says Ryan Carnegie, a research professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “This is natural selection happening out in the rivers and estuaries.”

Oysters begin as spat, which cost 2½ cents apiece. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The bivalves also have small commercial growers to thank for some of their comeback. It turns out that oyster farming, in addition to cleaning the bay, helps wild oysters survive. “We’re growing a lot of oysters through aquaculture, and it’s increasing,” says Carnegie.

Conventional wisdom once held that farmed oysters might introduce disease to wild oysters. But Carnegie contributed to a recent paper that discovered farming oysters actually reduces cases of dermo among the bay’s oysters. Dermo, which doesn’t affect humans, takes several years to develop in an oyster. Farmed oysters are harvested before dermo becomes a problem.

The two or three cages on my pier are oval-shaped, an arm’s-width long, and about a foot across at the opening. A cap pops off for retrieving the oysters. In the Chesapeake Bay, commercial growers drop rectangular cages the size of a coffee table to the bay’s floor. The cages have small legs that keep them out of the mud. A cage full of oysters weighs hundreds of pounds and requires a boat-mounted crane to hoist it.

Kimbro says oysters grown under a dock are a drop in the bucket in the fight against overabundant algae. “But every time, if you have lots of drops in the bucket, you might have something,” he says. “It helps water quality.”

At 2½ cents apiece, a seed oyster is a steal over the dollar or two we pay at an oyster bar. 

I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever come across, but oyster gardening is dead simple: Drop, wait, eat. 

Oysters like their water salty, and because of the brackish water in our area, about 20 miles north of the Chesapeake, our oysters grow more slowly than they do closer to the river’s mouth. Our seed oysters take two years or more to reach market size, which is about 3 inches across.

A couple weeks after we drop the bag of spat in the river, the oysters grow large enough that they can’t fall out. We toss the bag and dump them straight back in the cage. Sometimes, during the long wait that follows, we’ll check on them to see how they’ve grown.

When my kids were younger, their favorite thing about raising oysters was seeing all the creatures that were attracted to them or trying to eat them. Leaning over our dock, I’d pull up a plastic cage holding about 50 oysters and bang it on a wood plank. Out would cascade young crabs, shrimp and minnows, like a tiny reef showing what lived inside. 

The young crabs in the oyster cage also keep growing, sometimes to the point where they can’t get out of the cage. The crab sees an all-you-can-eat buffet turn into a watery prison, until the next time we open the cage to clean it and toss the startled crab back into the river. 

When it’s time to eat our own product, we’ll occasionally serve the oysters on the half shell, on a bed of ice, with a little cocktail sauce, heavy on horseradish and a squirt of lemon. But our go-to preparation is on the grill, always with cupped-side down to keep in the juice, called oyster liquor. The liquor begins steaming and the oysters open just slightly. Then we crack them the rest of the way open with an oyster knife. At a friend’s roast, we watched as he dropped them directly into a warm saucepan of butter and passed us forks. We stole the idea, which keeps them free of shell and tastes amazing.     

Growing a few bushels of oysters helps people connect to their environment. Oyster gardens contribute sustainably to our food supply, without using fertilizers and fossil fuels, Kimbro notes. An abundance of oysters, well beyond my small garden, could become a food source that moves from occasional luxury to dietary staple. “It’s an efficient way to provide protein to a population that’s going to outstrip the natural resources of the world, where we’re going to nine billion people pretty soon,” Kimbro says. “Not everybody can have hamburgers.”

We’re not there yet, but every seed counts.

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Paul Heltzel is a writer based in Tidewater, Virginia.


Top photo of Rappahannock oysters by Steve Helber/Associated Press


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