Oysters have once again become the bivalve of the hour, the defining protein of the age, expressing everything we want life and food to be right now. Luxurious but unpretentious, decadent but healthful, oysters are the must-order—from the basis of le grand plateau de fruits de mer at a New York institution like Balthazar to seafood-centric newbies like The Ordinary in Charleston, South Carolina. Oysters are even quasi-wild and sustainable, not to mention downright good for the oceans. There’s something sweetly deceptive about their simplicity, too.
Five oyster species are farmed in the U.S. That’s all.
A handful of oyster farms still have the clean, shallow, brackish waters required for local species to spawn wild without human help, accounting for about 5 percent of all market oysters. But the vast majority of American growers buy seed from one of dozens of hatcheries on both coasts. Some are tiny, like the hatchery Jones operates out of an old shipping container, and some are much bigger, like Bay Shellfish Company in Florida.
All hatchery workers start the process like Jones does, bringing male and female oysters together in tanks, under conditions that induce them to spawn, and then nursing millions, or even billions, of larvae to a viable size that set to become “seed.” That seed—microscopic but adult-looking oysters—gets shipped to farmers who raise and brand it either with a geographical designation like Bluepoint or Wellfleet, or with a farm-specific trade name like Sweetwater, from California’s Hog Island Oyster Company.
The one-of-a-kind Totten Inlet C. virginica oyster is an East Coast species raised in Puget Sound.
The science behind oysters: 4th-gen shellfish farmer Paul Taylor and daughter Brittany inspect the Taylor Shellfish oysterseed nursery in Shelton, WA.
Nick Jones, Jones Family Farms, harvesting shellfish in Shoal Bay on Lopez Island.
After “aging” for two years, the shells are used to give oyster larvae a place to set and beome seed. Farmers plant this seed in their own waters and then mostly leave it alone, allowing it to feed on natural phytoplankton. Most of the oyster half shells that we slurp down with cold Sancerre—or iced vodka shots, as the case may be—were harvested between one and two years of age, having acquired a taste and texture unique to where they matured.
This is the so-called merroir effect, analogous to terroir in winemaking: Local maritime conditions, including salinity, local phytoplankton species, and tidal flow, give oysters from
each and every farm and region a distinctive character. After all, East Coast oysters like Malpeque (Prince Edward Island), Bluepoint (Connecticut and Long Island, New York), Wellfleet (Massachusetts), Rappahannock (Virginia), and Apalachicola (Florida) are all the same C. virginica species, only raised in different taste-defining localeThere was a time, of course—and not so long ago—when oystermen simply waded into the vast, clean tidal flats of great waters like the Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake and San Francisco bays, plucking up millions of wild oysters. The estuary of the lower Hudson River alone once had 350 square miles of wild-spawning C. virginica oyster beds, making preindustrial New York City the greatest oyster-consuming city of all time. But pollution, landfill, and overharvesting killed New York’s last wild beds by 1927. Out West, oyster-loving Gold Rush prospectors did the same, devouring all the native Olympia oysters first in San Francisco Bay and then clear up the coast to Washington, thanks to schooners that raked coves and then sailed quickly south. Inside Puget Sound, pulp mill pollution killed off almost all of the Olympia oysters until 1957, when the mills closed, and local waters rebounded.
-excerpt from article "Oysterland: A Journey to the Heart of Bivalve Country" by Daniel Duane 2/18/14. See link for full article : How oysters are farmed and processed