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Oysters on the rise

    

      The extensive oyster selection at Portland, Maine’s Eventide oyster bar.

An article, titled “Oysters Ascendant”, in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal highlighted the bright environmental and economic future for farmed oysters in America. From Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, aquaculture oysters are booming in popularity- thanks to the emphasis on sustainable, slow food. As traditional sources of wild oysters are being negatively impacted by disease, overharvest, and in the case of the Gulf, oil, farmed oysters are taking their place in the fish markets and oyster bars of the United States. Customers pay premium prices for oysters of varying species and origin, seeking for that happy marriage of brine, algae, and oyster flavor that aficionados call “merroir” (with echoes of the ‘terroir’ referred to by oenophiles).

    

          “Pemaquids” and “Glidden Points” on order at a boutique oyster bar.

Oyster connoisseurs often refer to the location of an oyster’s harvest (rather than their species) to define distinct characteristics about their taste, intensity, aroma and saltiness, from New York’s “bluepoint”,  Florida’s “appalachicola”, to Massachusetts’ “wellfleet”. Chesapeake oysters, traditionally with only one specialized variety, “chincoteagues”, are now being differentiated and monikered by the up-and-coming aquaculture ventures that have proliferated in the southern reaches of the Bay. Consumers hungry for oysters of Bay origin now have the option of bellying up to an oyster bar and ordering a dozen half-shell “choptank sweets”, “watchhouse points”, “olde salts” or “parrot islands”, to name but a few.

   

             The author as oyster oenophile- it’s all about the merroir.

Oyster consumers are largely driving these changes in the oyster economy, seeking a supply of shellfish that matches their demand for variety, quality, novelty, and sustainability. Aquaculture oyster growers meet those needs, offering oysters year round, continuously raising new generations of oysters to replace those sold, and harnessing the marketing appeal of a name whose cachet embodies place and taste. The Chesapeake aquaculture industry has certainly felt the impact of the demand for these ‘boutique’ oysters- since 2007, the number of farmed oysters have exploded, with annual figures growing from 5 million to 23 million. Although most of the current Chesapeake industry is focused on the Virginia part of the estuary due to their traditional embrace of oyster aquaculture, the trend is growing in Maryland, as well, with the ushering in of legislation in 2005 that removed much of the red tape for oyster entrepreneurs in the state.

     

Boutique oysters also command higher prices than their wild-caught brethren, but rarely do they compete in the same markets, as many of the farmed oysters are destined for veritable ‘oyster palaces’- specialty restaurants supplying named varieties of oysters arrayed on glaciers of mounded ice, serving half-shell to gourmand customers. Farmed oysters, with their smooth, tumbled shell, uniform size, and colorful appelations, are produced almost solely to meet these criteria of what is called the “half shell” market, where a premium price is commanded for a pretty, appealing oyster. Wild-caught oysters, on the other hand, are often destined for the shucking market, where the price per oyster is lower and their misshapen or barnacle-studded shells end up on the floor rather than a bed of ice and lemon.

It’s a sea change in the oyster market, and one that could easily change the face of oyster harvesting and populations in the Chesapeake over the next decade, whether you’re a consumer, a producer, or a waterman working the Bay’s bottom.

Interested in learning where oysters are being farmed, or about the trend for boutique oysters?  Check out the Wall Street Journal article cited above, or take a look at In a Half Shell , a blog following the gustatory adventures of one young  oyster connoisseur that features a comprehensive list that’s always growing.

"Chesapeake" crab meat

Maryland crabcakes are a veritable melting pot of crabmeat from different parts of the world these days. Often, when you order a  “Maryland” crabcake off the menu at your favorite crab house, it may have no Maryland-originating crab meat in it at all, thanks to the globalization of the crabmeat markets. In an economy where Chesapeake crab meat is competing with brands sourcing their far-less-expensive crabmeat in the Gulf of Mexico, the Carolinas, and even as far away Venezula or Indonesia, consumers (whether restaurants buying in bulk or individuals ponying up $20 a pound) may have a hard time justifying how eating Bay seafood make sense to their wallet’s bottom line.

       

But some things are tough to put a price on- and that’s exactly what Maryland is hoping customers will think when spending a little more for Chesapeake crabmeat that’s not only delicious, but certified ‘sustainably harvested’. Maryland is still in the early stages of applying for the certification through the Marine Stewardship Council, which has provided similar stamps of approval (and summarily increased marketability) for Oregon’s dungeness crab harvest and lobsters caught off California’s Baja peninsula. The hope is that as shoppers assess all the different options for crabmeat, that stamp of sustainability will give Maryland meat the edge.

In an article in Businessweek, Jason Ruth, a seafood buyer for Harris Seafood in Grasonville, said he also has seen a shift toward sustainability over the past three or four years.

"A lot of the food service industry — your chain food stores like Whole Foods, Wegman’s, Safeway — are all leaning toward that right now," Ruth said. "They only want to deal with MSC-certified fisheries."

And Maryland has certainly taken steps to protect the populations of blue crabs in the Chesapeake, most notably a severe restriction on the harvest of female crabs several years ago that ultimately increased substantially the amount of crabs in the Chesapeake. (I should note that crabs in particular are well-suited to respond positively and almost immediately this kind of restriction due to their very short life-cycle.) In a marketplace where almost 80 percent of the seafood is imported, population-sustaining measures protecting local species helps promote eating fresh regional seafood, harvested with an eye towards the future, while also eating well.

To read the full article on Maryland’s move towards MSC certification, click through here: http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-03/D9TOMKG00.htm