Camping and Growing Oysters on the Chesapeake Bay

November 13, 2021: It looked like peak fall time in Virginia. The hardwoods were showering leaves and the nights were certainly approaching freezing temperatures. My son and my brother were convinced this was one of the last weekends for a good campout. We decided to go back to my father’s land on the Chesapeake Bay. It was also time for us to upsize the oyster bag on our small oyster farm project that we started back in June 2021, so we decided to make a fall campout trip out of it.

Looking out at Fishing Bay, in the Chesapeake Bay.
I’ve been packing a small water color painting kit in our camp gear and it’s been a fun activity for downtime on these trips.

We arrived late in the day around 5:30pm and it was already dark, we set up our tent and made a large fire to keep us warm. The winds were fierce and the gusts fueled the fire to roaring heights. It would dip to 34 degrees F that night but our spirits were high and we were dressed properly. My son was eager to sleep in the tent, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the morning, we trekked out on to the dock to check our oyster farm. We started with 1000 tiny oysters (spat) in mesh bags, and it has been approximately 1 year since we started raising them. Every 6 months, the oysters would need to have their bags upsized so they can grow properly. We were amazed to see how quickly they have grown. Most of them appeared to be larger than the 2.5 inches which is typical table size for serving.

The eventual goal is to hopefully repopulate the oyster population surrounding our waters. Oysters serve as filter feeders for the Chesapeake Bay and their ability to filter the water and promote growth for plants, fish and crabs, have made it one of the most important players in the restoration and maintenance of the bay. For now, it’s time for a feast, and time to up our oyster farm game! Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and get your boosters!

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.