Dana M. Chang
A Rappahannock River oyster is shucked fresh off the boat.
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With Silver Bells and Oyster Shells (and So Their Gardens Grow)

Katy Keiffer / June 2013

Consider the oyster—and the other shellfish—being raised in unprecedented numbers by aquaculturists now dabbling as restaurateurs as well.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”
The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll

Rejoice in the miracle of aquaculture, for in the case of shellfish, it has produced a bounty of bivalves, revived coastal waterways, and spawned a cadre of restaurants celebrating the concept of merroir. The explosion of diners’ interest in shellfish has led to the creation of legions of new oyster farms, along with increased cultivation of mussels and hardshell, geoduck, and Manila clams.

There are over 1,000 oyster farms operating on the East Coast between Maine and Florida, according to Bob Rheault, president of East Coast Shellfish Growers Association and former proprietor of the Moonstone Oyster Farm in Point Judith, Rhode Island. The species Crassostrea virginica is the native East Coast oyster, and, at present, the only one cultivated in large numbers. Thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, coastal environments are once more hospitable to oysters, a more pollution-sensitive bivalve than clams or mussels and the proverbial canary in the coal mine when assessing the health of their watery homes. Coupled with increased eco-consciousness, important advances in aquaculture techniques now allow aquaculturists to raise oysters at 100 to 1,000 times their natural density in a measured area of water.

A device called an upweller that delivers a much higher volume of water and nutrients to young oysters has, according to Rheault, “shaved a year off the production cycle. Oysters will grow tenfold in volume in a week with a hundred gallons a minute of water pumping through daily. You start with 100,000 spats (oysters in their larval stage) that will fit in your hand, and in six weeks that palmful becomes 60 gallons.”

A further important development in oyster cultivation has been the addition of a chromosome. “Wild oysters are diploid, meaning they have two chromosomes,” explains Travis Croxton of the Rappahannock Oyster Company in Butylo, Virginia. “When it’s 75 degrees, they’ll spawn and all their energy goes into reproduction, so the meat quality is not so great. By the way, that’s why oysters were discouraged in months minus an R. But shellfish breeders came up with the triploid, or an oyster with three chromosomes, that doesn’t reproduce. We cultivate both types so we always have a supply of great oysters in the summer months when our diploids are busy making babies.”

Though the Rappahannock Oyster Company has been in the Croxton family for 100 years, Travis and his cousin, Ryan Croxton, are the first to actively farm the oyster plots. Prior to that, the natural abundance of the Chesapeake Bay oysters supported the business. Travis Croxton describes what led them to begin working in aquaculture. “It took a long time to decimate the oyster population in the Chesapeake. Plus, they dredged up the natural shell reefs, which affected the natural environment and created much murkier water. On top of that, the pollution created dead oxygen zones and giant algae blooms. Oysters are the first line of defense in keeping the ecosystem healthy.” The Croxtons recognize their responsibility in environmental stewardship. “For every oyster you eat, we put 12 back in the bay.”

Oyster cultivation is open to anyone with a small boat, the willingness to go through the permitting process, and a capacity for demanding physical labor. While there are several styles of cultivation—choosing between flats or bags, for instance—the oyster gear must be continually maintained and free of any debris for maximum water circulation. As the oysters grow out, they’re separated so they don’t crowd one another. At the same time, they are sorted according to size and finally moved from bag or flat to the bottom to finish growing. Travis Croxton points out that “unlike the oyster farming of yesteryear, we touch the oyster probably 15 times between spat and harvest. That’s a lot of labor when you’re growing six million oysters!”

The Croxtons also have spawned three restaurants. The Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C., boasts a huge raw bar featuring their oysters—the Stingrays, the Rappahannocks, and the Olde Salts—along with an assortment of small plates, including crab cakes served on a bed of celeriac and topped with a zesty rémoulade, as well as steamers, scallops, oyster stew, and a new combination: lamb and clams, a brothy bowl of ground lamb, clams, white beans, and greens. The tasting room Merroir, in Topping, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River is home base for some of their oyster farms and the most casual of the three. And there’s Rappahannock, a full service farm-to-table place in Richmond, Virginia. “The major issue in oyster farming is getting to the consumer, who doesn’t usually go to fine dining or raw bars,” Croxton says. That’s not a problem at the ramshackle Merroir, where open-air grilling and outdoor seating take advantage of the spectacular setting on river’s edge. Oysters—raw, grilled, or stewed—join a multitude of small seasonal dishes there, such as grilled scallops on a bed of cheese grits, grilled quail, and the “stuffin’ muffin” (oyster stuffing served with a bacon/scallion sauce). The cousins also go out of their way to bring in a variety of oysters from other areas to emphasize the concept of merroir in which singular differences in flavor can arise from even the smallest geographical distances between oyster beds.

The oyster industry has grown nearly 20 percent yearly in states like Rhode Island, Virginia, and Massachusetts, over the past decade, and owning a restaurant in which to sell the product is becoming a more common business model for oyster farmers. Perry Raso of the Matunuck Oyster Bar in East Matunuck, Rhode Island, had no restaurant experience per se, but had accumulated plenty of shellfish savvy. As a teenager, he dug clams, selling them directly to restaurants. Once he achieved his degree in aquaculture, he leased a small plot in Potter’s Pond in East Matunuck and took over the adjacent restaurant property. Now with seven acres under cultivation, he sells about half a million mature oysters a year into his restaurant and other establishments. In addition, he sells several million seed oysters to other growers.

Raso typically offers up to seven varieties of oysters a day, the majority of which are local. “I sell East Beach, Ninigret, Moonstones, and Rome Point Oysters all from around here,” he says. “And although they’re geographically close, they come from different bodies of water, and they each have distinctive flavors.” To change things up even more, he may add a West Coast variety or a couple of types from Cape Cod or Maine. The Matunuck Oyster Bar is a seafood restaurant, with a full menu, despite the name. Raso, a staunch supporter of all local products, features native fish, cheeses, and, of course, as much locally grown produce as possible. In the past year, he has added a vegetable farm to his operation that supplies the restaurant year-round. His lobster rolls are jammed with local lobster, and the menu includes the uniquely Rhode Island clear clam chowder and the best stuffies in the state, quahogs stuffed with a savory mix of chopped clams, croutons, and Portuguese chouriço.

When asked whether he would be farming clams or mussels anytime soon, he responds, “I waffle between growing clams and buying them; I got 20 cents for ’em when I was a teenager, and I’m still getting 20 cents now. I’d love to grow mussels, but I would have to look awfully hard for a viable site to do it. Mussels like a lot of movement in the water, much more than oysters or clams, and there’s so much competition for leases I doubt it’s something I’m going to get into.“

In colder waters on the northern Pacific and Northeastern seaboards, growers are developing longline mussel culture, a new technique currently in wide use in tidal basins and estuaries. Longlines promise immense harvests, and as the human population grows, most aquaculture experts hope to develop massive farms in federal waters, anywhere that is between three and 200 miles off shore. State legislatures control the water immediately off their own coasts, but three miles offshore it becomes federal property. Setting up longline mussel culture out in deep water would reduce competition with other species as well as between farmers jockeying for sites. However, because states are in charge of coastal resource management and fisheries, it’s a challenge to figure out what part of the federal government should be controlling leases for this new form of aquaculture. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays a role in managing leases closer to shore, but there are issues in aquaculture that also concern the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as more global problems involving international shipping, marine resources, and the like. Essentially, no regulatory agency exists to manage this offshore property, so the industry is somewhat stalled until Congress makes a ruling on who will be responsible for running aquaculture in federal waters. Though early pilots started back in the 1990s have shown great promise, so far only one project off Catalina Island in California has a green light; another pilot project is being readied off Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

Penn Cove Shellfish, a very successful shellfish farm in Washington, with locations in Penn Cove and Quilcene Bay just north of Seattle, has been using longline mussel culture since 1975. The two million pounds of mussels Penn Cove produces each year are known for their sweet flavor and delicate texture. Every month, 7,500 pounds of them go to Robert Wiedmaier, chef/owner of Marcel’s (Washington, D.C.), Brasserie Beck (Washington, D.C.), Brabo Tasting Room (Alexandria, VA), Wildwood Kitchen (Bethesda, MD) and Mussel Bar & Grille (Revel in Atlantic City and in Bethesda, MD). Wiedmaier’s appreciation for mussels began in his native Belgium, where mussels and beer are a favorite way to rally with friends. Penn Cove harvests to order, a practice that really impressed him. “I visited in January 2011 with my son and, after sampling some of their mussels, I knew I needed to go domestic—they were some of the most succulent mussels I’d ever tasted,” he says. “And taste aside, it was something I also wanted to do to support the American seafood industry.”

Inspiring timid diners to dive into the pleasures of the shellfish table has taken other directions as well. Given the public interest in Iron Chef and similar television chefs contests, Patrick McMurray, chef/owner of Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill and Ceili Cottage in Toronto, has turned his talent for speed shucking into a marketing tool. He competes regularly in shucking contests (he won the title at the world championships, held annually in Galway, Ireland, in 2002), holds the Guinness World Book of Records for the most oysters shucked—and shucked cleanly, at that—in one minute (33), and has even developed his own shucking tool for the job, which he sells in his restaurants. As part of his marketing strategy, McMurray brings in species such as Ostrea edulis or the European flat oyster, commonly and incorrectly referred to as Belon, to his restaurants (only oysters from the Belon River estuary in Brittany have the right to be called Belon, just as Champagne is only from Champagne, or Cognac from Cognac). He’s a fan of the rock oyster, or Saccostrea glomerata, which is native to New Zealand, and cultivated in Australia. “I think of myself as a master sommelier of oysters, since they have so many flavors,” he says. These foreign oysters, legal in Canada, are not regularly seen on most oyster menus; thus, there’s a real excitement to being able to sample them, along with their North American counterparts.

McMurray got his start working with the legendary Rodney Clark, a major shellfish distributor and the proprietor of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto. In the business for over 30 years, Clark has overseen, and some might say he even has had a strong hand in developing, the burgeoning market for oysters and shellfish in Canada and the United States. In 2006, he started his own shellfish farm, Rodney’s Oyster Depot, on his native Prince Edward Island, while continuing to distribute oysters for other growers. In his many decades as a distributor, Clark has seen significant changes in the business. Chief among them is the size and shape of the oysters.

“When I started out, oysters were at least four inches long, or larger, and shaped like a box,” Clark notes. “We sold four grades: Commercial, the lowest grade, was very long, but very flat, with no cup and inconsistent in size. Standards, also long and narrow, but with more of a cup, came in small sizes of three to four inches. Large came in at four to five inches. Choice were so named choice because of their excellent symmetry, (one and a half times as wide as long), making them very popular in the restaurant trade, and also offered in small and large sizes of three to four inches and four to six inches. And finally the forgotten fancy! The fancy oyster was a native of Prince Edward Island, a perfect, perfect shape, almost like a teardrop before it falls, and running from five to 10 inches in size! Alas, the Great Malpeque Disease wiped this colossal bivalve off the map around 1900, though they could still occasionally be found up to about 1982, along with the choice. Now all you get are commercials and standards because it takes too long to grow them out to the bigger sizes.” 

Another significant change in the business is the proliferation of names. Clark is a strong advocate for standardizing nomenclature, arguing that “all these different names are confusing! In France, they identify oysters by using their scientific names, or an AOC [Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée] name.” Rheault concurs that there are way too many names and suggests that the “appellation” system might indeed make more sense. Still, if the concept of merroir is to mean anything, then using the specific place name, rather than a region, is an important aspect of selling the product, however confusing it may be to keep so many names straight.

On the West Coast, where oyster farming has been thriving since the late 19th century, the only truly native species there is the Olympia, or Ostreola conchaphila. This species is found from Alaska to Mexico. Around the 1920s, as the industry expanded, oystermen imported seed from Japan to supplement their harvest. This introduced species is now naturalized and is referred to as Pacific, Miyagi, or Crassostrea gigas. Among the first to exploit the introduction of the Pacific to the area was Taylor Shellfish Farms, a family-owned business based in Washington State that has been growing oysters since the 1880s. Over the decades, the Taylors have evolved from producing primarily Olympia and Pacific oysters to a fuller range of shellfish, including mussels, geoduck, and Manila clams. They also cultivate Kumamotos, or Crassostrea sikamea, and a selection of Crassostrea virginica. Unlike on the East Coast, where plots are leased, West Coast growers tend to own their plots. The Taylor family grows its shellfish in multiple locations, along the coastlines of Washington, California, and British Columbia. They sell shellfish seed as well, and operate a thriving wholesale business, shipping their products to distributors all over the United States.

Jon Rowley, an expert in bivalve aquaculture (see Silver Spoon, March 2011) and a consultant to Taylor for 25 years, has been instrumental in introducing a variety of techniques to improve the company’s oysters. Tumbling, first developed by the Sterling Shellfish Company in Vancouver, has proven to be a highly successful innovation. “Tumbling sheers off the soft edges of new growth in the shell,” Rowley explains. “This encourages a uniform shape and a harder shell, making shucking much easier. It also gets rid of debris on the shell and makes them easier to clean. Tumbling makes for a very sexy looking oyster: The cup is deeper, and the oyster is plump and compact.” To accomplish this, growing oysters are placed periodically in a mesh bag and either tumbled in a strong tidal flow or by hand. New contraptions that use the tides to flip the oyster bags over and back with weights and pulleys are increasingly popular. The Croxtons tumble their oysters every seven to 10 days from the time they receive them in their nursery beds to when they are put out in cages at one and a quarter inches long. At that point, they’re tumbled eight to 10 more times to encourage that perfect size and shape so prized on the restaurant plate. Some oyster growers simply bang their bags against the bottom during the routine weekly maintenance, a far more labor-intensive process. The Croxtons turn theirs in a perforated cylindrical drum, with the perforations changing diameter depending on what size oysters are being tumbled.

Rowley elaborates on other desirable characteristics oyster farmers can encourage. “Most oysters shells tend to veer one way or the other,” he notes, “We breed the curve out so it looks more like a triangle than a curled petal. Something else we might breed out would be a hinge that curls over, making them hard to shuck. The most desirable characteristic, of course, is uniformity, a three-inch by two-inch triangular shape. It all comes down to looking good on the plate.”

Hog Island Oyster Company is another thriving West Coast operation that grows oysters, Manila clams, and mussels. Located north of San Francisco on Tomales Bay in Marshall, it has made a name for their perfectly shaped Atlantic, Kumamoto, and Pacific oysters. Founders/owners John Finger and Terry Sawyer started their company in 1983 with a loan from parents and degrees in marine biology and aquatic husbandry. Since then they have grown their company to 160 acres of shellfish, producing over three million oysters a year. The company has an innovative program of bars in San Francisco and Napa and a picnic table dining experience on the oyster farm called The Boat, where customers can shuck and grill their own oysters while sampling local cheeses and vegetables to round out their meals. They supply high-end restaurants as well, and if that weren’t enough to keep them knee-deep in shells, they sell via a mail order division and offer a traveling oyster bar experience.

On both coasts, the success of the smaller Kumamoto and the Olympia, the two smallest varieties, has captured the admiration of the oyster-eating population at large. That popularity is one factor in allowing farmers to sell an oyster at two years of age rather than the traditional three. Also, according to Rowley, “demand is so strong that farmers can sell them even if they aren’t really mature.” The average length of a desirable oyster has gone from four inches to three.

“When I started, if I tried to sell an oyster less than four inches they would have laughed me out of the place,” says Rheault.

“Oysters have gotten puny!” echoes Clark. “Seems like the names get longer as the oysters get smaller!”

While outfits such as Taylor on the West Coast are growing and selling exotics like the Manila clam and geoduck, the giant soft-shell clam beloved by Asians, most shellfish aquaculture is focused on oysters, mussels, and clams. At present, experiments ongoing in Maine and Canada for cultivating bay scallops present a challenge for farming. Rheault points out that because of their loose gill structure, scallops require a huge amount of water to filter feed. “If I put the same number of scallops as oysters in a bag, they’ll pump three times as much water, which means three times the gear and three times the maintenance. And at the end of 18 months, you’d get something the size of pencil eraser.” Scallops in the shell only have a three-day shelf life; unlike other shellfish that can withstand a longer time out of the water, scallops are leaky and dry up. Once that happens, the scallop dies and can’t be sold. “We tried freezing them on the boat in a nitrogen tunnel, but even though chefs couldn’t taste the difference between fresh and frozen, they refused to buy the frozen,” Rheault laments. “There’s a lot of negative attitude toward frozen fish, but if it’s done right, it’s much better than fish or shellfish sitting around on ice and deteriorating before the boat gets back to dock.”

Hardshell clams—with the evocative names littlenecks, middle necks, top necks, cherrystones, and quahogs denoting size, from smallest to largest—remain naturally abundant in nature. So do softshells, also called steamers. In spite of that, new techniques for farming hardshells were developed in the 1990s, allowing for tremendous increases in cultivation. Clam cultivation on the East Coast generates about $73.5 million a year, according to Rheault, with clams making up roughly 60 percent of the overall total shellfish harvest annually. “Production is flat,” he says. “In the 1990s, the fishermen around here took to clam farming so extensively they crashed the price from 20 to 30 cents per piece to 10 to 15 cents.”

Perhaps because of the merroir factor, oysters will continue to fetch relatively high prices, at least for those from the northern waters of either coast. Gulf coast oysters command nowhere near that price, possibly due to their shorter shelf life. Warm-water oysters are more likely to go into the shucked business, rather than the half shell trade for restaurants. Cold-water oysters can last up to several weeks or even months if properly stored, though the flavor will deteriorate.

When Clark recites: “An oyster is Mother Nature’s most pure ingredient. Just pop it open; it needs nothing. Carefully choose the vessel that will let the oyster come to the viewer’s eyes, and be sure you know the story of the oyster from your distributor,” it’s clear that shellfish aquaculture is sheer poetry.