Growing oysters in the Chesapeake Bay

In 1608, John Smith described the Chesapeake Bay as a bountiful body of water in his journals: “a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation“.  The water seemed full to the brim with white salmon (rockfish aka stripped bass), bluecrabs, porpoises, and of course the oyster. He described the large beds of “oysters that lay as thick as stones”.  The oyster population was so abundant that the oyster reefs neared surfaces and became navigable hazards.

In 2021, the state of the bay is certainly different. The oyster population has been decimated due to over-fishing, polution and diseases. It is estimated that in the year 2011, the oyster population in the upper Chesapeake Bay was 0.3% of the population levels of the early 1800s.

Of late, many conservation efforts have pushed towards oyster repopulation as one of the main ways to fight pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. As filter feeders, oysters are capable of filtering over 1 gallon of water an hour. As they purify the water, this allow sunlight to penetrate the water and to grow bay grasses, this in turns provide habitats for the blue crabs and fish. As such, the oyster plays a critical role in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

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I have always been interested in growing oysters and raising them. With the help of a friend of mine, we were able to get a small farm going. He has been doing this for several years and has several floats, with hundreds of oysters at different stages of life. It takes approximately 1.5 years to raise an oyster that is large enough for eating (approximately 2.5 inches). You can buy oysters as “spat”, this is the term used to call oysters larvae that are mature enough to latch onto another surface. You could typically buy 1000 of them for around 70 dollars.

There really is not much to tending to oysters. They just need water and room to grow. Every 6 months, they will need to be moved into a larger meshed bag, until eventually they are large enough to sit in an oyster cage. In the meantime, you can just hose them off occasionally and clean the cages of barnacles. My eventual goal will be to see if we re-establish a wild population once again, without cages. This is one small step though towards that direction. Long live the Chesapeake bay.

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