Southern Maryland Oysters and the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival
By Bob Tagert
Since next month marks the 50th anniversary of the annual Oyster Festival at the St. Mary’s Fairgrounds, I thought that I would check up on our bivalve friends and check on their progress over the past 15 years.
The Oyster Festival is an event that is attended by folks from all over including a large group of Virginians that make the pilgrimage every year. There will be oysters cooked anyway that you like or, like most, on the half shell. This is also home of the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championship and shuckers come from all over the country to compete for the title. Competitors also come from around the country to compete in the Oyster Cook off that consists of three categories: hors d’oeuvres, soups/stews, and main dishes. Professional chefs serve as the judges, although the public gets a chance to vote on their favorite dish. But what are these incredible creatures that are not only good to eat but also can filter up to 50 gallons of water an hour.
Oysters are considered the vacuum cleaners of the Chesapeake Bay. They filter the water removing organic and inorganic particles from the water resulting in cleaner water, which positively impacts other species including man. Oysters can selectively choose and feed on microscopic phytoplankton or algae, removing the algal biomass from the water. Oysters also remove other suspended solids from the water and package them into bundles, which they release as pseudofeces. This bundle is then utilized by other organisms on the oyster reef for food. In 2010 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a report stating, “Adding up the cumulative annual losses over the last three decades shows that the decline of oysters has meant a loss of more than $4 billion for the economies of Maryland and Virginia.” On the Brink: Chesapeake’s Native Oysters…what will it take to bring them back?
Once plentiful throughout the Chesapeake, oysters began to decline as a result of over fishing and disease. Due to concentrated efforts and monitoring the populations on oyster bars, there has been a slow return in the number of oysters. In a 2015 release by the Fishery-independent oyster survey reported that over the past nine years there has been a slow increase in the number of market oysters found on 30 sampled oyster bars, increasing about 350% from 2007 to 2015, however abundance levels are still very low compared to historic levels.
Restoring the oyster industry in the Chesapeake Bay is a key environmental goal of Maryland’s policy makers and residents. Maryland Sea Grant Extension played an important role in influencing major changes in state policies that encourage expansion of oyster aquaculture throughout the Bay. New legislation enacted in 2010 expanded the area of the Chesapeake Bay that can be leased for oyster harvesting and the categories of eligible leaseholders. The state of Maryland opened 6000,000 acres for future private aquaculture leases, and the state Department of Natural Resources began accepting applications for leases under the new rules.
Because of these actions and similar actions in Virginia, oyster farming, or aquaculture has become a big business and has spawned a number of private operations like HongaTonk, Sweet Jesus, Choptank Sweets, 38 Degrees North, all in Maryland and Virginia’s Lighthouse, Hog Island, Wild Ass Pony, Rappahannock Oysters and Alexandria’s own Bruce Wood and his farm, Dragon Creek in Maryland. The difference is that the oysters are suspended in cages. Traditionally, oysters were scraped or tonged off the bottom of the Bay from the afore mentioned oyster beds. Today the oysters are suspended hanging from floats and do not lie on the bottom thus creating a more even flow of water all around the oyster and doesn’t get smothered in the mud. This method allows the farmers to produce a healthy and clean oyster by growing it up off of the bottom.
Last year, Maryland and Virginia reported their best oyster harvest in three decades, gathering a combined 900,000 bushels, and that number doesn’t include the oysters in both states that are raised in floats and cages, which has become a multi-million dollar business. Some estimates for oyster farming last year are as many as 500,000 oysters for a single operation.
The world is your oyster…so come to the St. Mary’s County 50th Oyster Festival in October and discover that world.