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The Chesapeake oyster is rivaled perhaps only by the blue crab as a signature native food of our region. But the oyster population plummeted over the past century, reversed only recently by restoration efforts. That’s good news for those in the culinary world who predict an oyster renaissance. We speak with an oysterman, a chef, and others about the future of the bay oyster.
- Stephan Abel Executive Director, Oyster Recovery Partnership
- Timothy Devine Owner, Barren Island Oysters (Hoopers Island, Md.)
- Spike Gjerde Chef, Woodberry Kitchen (Baltimore, Md)
- Steve Vilnit Fisheries Marketing Director, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
From Bay To Table, The Life Cycle Of An Oyster
Timothy Devine, owner of Barren Island Oysters in Hooper’s Island, Md., walks us through the life cycle of an oyster, from the Chesapeake Bay to your table. Filmed, edited and produced by Ryan Mixson.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. Few foods are tied as closely to the pride and the pain of the Chesapeake Bay as its treasured oysters. For most of the past century, the bay's oyster population plummeted, decimated by deadly combinations of pollution, overfishing and disease.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the Chesapeake oyster may be staging a comeback just as the culinary world is entering something of an oyster renaissance. Recent harvest suggests things may be turning a corner. During the past five years, the annual number of oysters harvested from the region spiked from five to 23 million a year. And the largest oyster recovery project on the East Coast is now underway in Maryland.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile, chefs across the region and around the country are reconnecting with dishes that have long defined life around the bay, and a new crop of oyster farmers are rising to meet them. Joining us to explore the science, the history and the food behind the oysters' epic journey is Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of the Woodberry Kitchen restaurant in Baltimore, Md. Spike, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SPIKE GJERDEGreat to be back with you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Stephan Abel. He is the executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. Stephan, thank you for joining us.
MR. STEPHAN ABELThank you.
NNAMDITimothy Devine is the owner of Barren Island Oysters of Hooper's Island, Md. Timothy, good to have you aboard...
MR. TIMOTHY DEVINEIt's good to be here.
NNAMDI...and good to taste one of your oysters so early in the broadcast.
NNAMDISteve Vilnit is the fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Steve, thank you for joining us.
MR. STEVE VILNITNice to be back.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. Where do you think oysters fit into the culinary identity of the Chesapeake region, and what do you think is at stake in the efforts to preserve and restore the Chesapeake's oyster population? The number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDISpike, the last time you and I spoke, we spent an hour diving into your enthusiasm for the history and the personality of the Chesapeake and for the places where you grew up. I have such vivid memories of those fish peppers you brought with you that day. But when it comes to oysters, where do they fit into the history and the culture that you hold so dear and that you're trying to revive?
GJERDEI think the oyster is probably the greatest emblem that we have, the greatest symbol but also the greatest hope we have for the Chesapeake, and it starts, you know, it starts when the Chesapeake was first formed, and it leads right up to today. We have I think almost the moral duty to serve oysters on our menu because of what they mean to this area and this region and also because of how delicious they are.
NNAMDIWell, the oysters that were just brought into the room in which yours truly will be devouring shortly...
NNAMDI...are not exactly big things, but each of these guys are decades upon decades of history about an entire way of life. People in this region have literally built their daily existence around these oysters. How would you describe the state of the culture that exists today when it comes to the oysters and the working people who make their living off them? I'll start with you, Steve.
VILNITThis is definitely an industry that has been declined in the recent years. However, like we said, it's coming back. And it's coming back in a different way than it, you know, has been in history. We have these oyster farmers popping up all over the bay with thousands of acres being leased throughout the bay.
VILNITAnd there's guys starting farms. Like Tim here, we're going to have a new image of oysters on the bay. It's not going to say that the old image is going to disappear. Those guys are actually having a fantastic year, and, you know, reports are this morning that it's probably the best year they've had in over 20 years.
NNAMDIStephan, how do you feel?
ABELOh, along the same way. I think the cultural history play such a big role here in Baltimore, Md. on the eastern shore. I mean, it's such a huge way of life within the watermen community, and it's just paramount that that element continues just because it's so important to the economy. But then again, when you see and you experience aquaculture in the realm today that more and more businesses, like Tim's here with Barren Island, are getting involved in the business and really producing specialty oysters. So it's a great combination of blending the old culture with the new.
DEVINEYes. You know, as Stephan just...
DEVINE...Stephan just said that I started an aquaculture business, and so the history for me has been important to learn what has been done in the past and what we can do in the future. And at Barren Island, we are trying to create the premium brand oyster from the half shell while maintaining some of the history and the culture of the island where we're from. We employ local watermen, and we grow really fantastic oysters.
NNAMDIStephan, by most accounts, the bay's oyster population started to collapse some 50 years ago, and the downward spiral literally lasted for decades. Could you say in a nutshell what happened?
ABELWell, I would say it probably even started in the turn of the last century, 1880s, 1900s. You were seeing 10, 15 million bushels being harvested out of the bay at that time. I mean recognizing that oysters are a fantastic source of protein was basically where a lot of the folks got, you know, their vitamins, if you will. And over time, there was historical overfishing at that point, and then in the '50s and '60s, we saw two diseases specific to oysters come in the bay -- Dermo and MSX, which devastated the population.
ABELSo once you had these thriving reefs that were, you know, almost coming out of the water, you know, harvesting broke it down to where it's just the oysters laying on the bottom. The disease took care of that. And then in, you know, '60s, '70s, '80s, we saw silt and sediments coming in the bay, poor water quality which then in turn impacted the population as well. So you saw a low point back of the 2003, 2004 era where you only had 24,000 bushels harvested.
ABELWe've seen that creep back up to about 135,000 bushels last year, and this year, they're looking at two or three times that. So a lot of it is based on, you know, trends in the water, but overall, you're seeing, you know, a slight comeback with the natural population. You're also seeing that oysters being less resistant -- or more resistant to disease. You're seeing natural good batch sets occur out in the bay. So, on their own, they're doing a fairly good comeback.
NNAMDISteve, Stephan talked about two specific diseases. That's MSX and Dermo. What exactly are they, and where they did come from?
VILNITThese are diseases that, to the best of my knowledge, originated in the Gulf of Mexico. They're diseases that don't necessarily -- they don't harm humans at all, but they're deadly to oysters. And, unfortunately, you know, having these introduced into the area and having years of high salinity which increases the amount of disease in the bay, we basically -- it spread through, and they eliminated a lot of these oyster bars that were out there. Again, it's not harmful to humans in anyway, but it's a deadly disease for oysters.
NNAMDII guess we should point out, too, that people are not so urgently concerned about the oysters because they're some kind of mascot for the bay. They play a big role in keeping the bay healthy for everything else in it. Stephan, how does that process work?
ABELWell, the oysters themselves alone they can filter -- mature oysters and that's being about three inches -- can filter 30 to 50 gallons of water a day on average over a given year, but it's more than just that because they actually provide a 3-D reef. I mean, they're one of the most critical animals in the bay, the foundation for all the other marine life.
ABELThey provide nooks and crannies for other fish to hide in. They provide a hard substrate for mussels and barnacles and other filter feeders in the bay that actually when they grow on these reefs actually filter more than the oysters themselves. So in all, it's a very compact ecosystem that's vital for all the other species.
NNAMDIIn case you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number is 800-433-8850. You might be considering the eating part. Do you consider yourself an oyster aficionado? What are your favorite ways to enjoy them, and where do you turn to find them? We're talk with Stephan Abel. He is the executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. Timothy Devine is the owner of Barren Island Oysters of Hooper's Island, Md. Spike Gjerde is the chef and owner of the Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, Md.
NNAMDIAnd Steve Vilnit is the fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Timothy, before we go any farther down the scientific rabbit hole, you grew up in eastern Maryland just up the road from where you farm oysters now on Hooper's Island. What was your relationship to this entire kind of oyster universe, if you will, growing up, or was there something that you found yourself connecting with later in life?
DEVINENo. As you said, I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, and I spent every summer on the Chesapeake Bay -- swimming in it, sailing in it, working on the water, crabbing, fishing and oystering. So this was kind of a natural progression, although it did help that Maryland was very supportive of our efforts to create an aquaculture farm. But when I found out -- when I really learned that how good oysters were for the environment, I thought how cool is it to have a profitable business and do something for the bay at the same time.
NNAMDIHow would you describe the culture on Hooper's Island? Even though it's only a short drive from your hometown, it's a pretty, well, ancient kind of place where only a few hundred people are permanent residents there.
DEVINEYes. That's true. I think I'm still an outsider there.
DEVINEI think everyone has been very nice and warm and actually very open, but it is definitely a world onto itself.
NNAMDIYeah. It's my understanding that when our producer Michael Martinez and our intern Ryan Mixon went down there, they discovered that everybody else was calling you an outsider...
NNAMDI...even though you grew up just up the road from there. 800-433-8850 if you'd like to join this oyster conversation. Spike, when it comes to the things people are doing to jumpstart the oyster population in the bay and the work of the recovery partnership, where do individual farmers, like Timothy Devine, in your view come into the picture?
GJERDEI think they're really the future of the Chesapeake oyster at this point. I mean the Chesapeake, as we all know, has got numerous challenges with regard to the things that Stephan talked about, and I see the one substantial ray of hope is what Timothy is doing. And you combine that with the work of the Oyster Recovery Partnership and I think that's a blueprint for possible health and recovery of the Chesapeake. I don't think there's any other way forward. And when you take -- when you finally taste the oyster, I think it's all confirmed because these oysters are the best I've ever had.
NNAMDIStephan, is it Stephan or Stephan?
ABELEither one is fine.
NNAMDIEither one. Stephan, Stephan, it's my understanding that Maryland is only beginning to develop aquaculture while Virginia has strongly encouraged it for some years now. Is there a reason for that?
ABELWell, Maryland always had aquaculture. They've had it for a century. But in 2009, the state really went through and revamped a lot of these old laws and made it easier for individuals, like Tim, to get involved in the business. I mean, right now, there are about 300 leases out there that encompasses about 3,500 acres, but since 2009, we've got 165 new individuals that have applied to get involved within -- growing their oysters. Many of those are farmers, like Tim, and others are watermen who are looking at new ways of, you know, generating additional income.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Anne in Arlington, Va. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEThank you. I'm wondering, Kojo, if your guests are aware of the controversy surrounding aquaculture, specifically the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in California. This is an area where my family has a home, and there is very complex jurisdiction. There is a lease that is officially part of the state Coastal Commission.
ANNEBut the farmers who got into aquaculture taking over a much older business, who are, like your guests described, in the Chesapeake, originally farmers and ranchers have been -- we hope it's not final -- but ruled against by the secretary of the interior, Salazar. Are your guests aware of this? And I do hope that they can add their voices and help, and that they can see the West Coast oysters where they are not interested in marketing back East as fellow oyster men who need their help.
VILNITYou know, this is definitely a problem. I mean, these guys -- I don't know the whole story of what's going on out there. But I heard, you know, a little bit of snippets of the story. And it's, you know, it's a huge problem in order to, you know, having these guys with the traditional business model going, what they had -- and they had a thriving business it sounds like -- having it taken away from them.
VILNITWe're doing our best here in Maryland to make sure that these guys -- giving them all the support we can. This is something the state realizes that we need in terms of putting oysters back in the bay and bringing back the health of the bay. So coming from Maryland, we're giving all the support we can to these new oyster farms.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Anne. How do you see the current atmosphere on the environmental issues affecting the watermen who make their living harvesting the oyster? Stephan, I read there was a good deal of pushback when the environmental movement started to target power dredging and patent tonging and to limit oyster harvesting on certain reefs.
ABELWell, there are five different types of harvesting. There is the traditional hand tonging, patent tong, which is a motorized hand tong. There is power dredging where you basically scrape a basket behind the boat. Diving -- you can dive for oysters and old skipjacks, where there used to thousands of skipjacks that would undersell dredged oysters. And now, you've only got a dozen or so that are left in the bay.
ABELThere is in every -- I guess, every tributary, every river and every part of the bay is kind of marked out for those individual gear types. So, you know, over time, you know, the watermen have, you know, set aside different areas in how they can certainly harvest. I think the biggest controversy was a few years ago when the state was looking at was to expand the restoration efforts and finding a balance between the open and wild fishery and areas for restoration where they basically set aside additional bottom for restoration.
ABELAnd there was a controversy associated with it. But it's also on a per trial basis, where I believe in the next few years based on certain outcomes, if you will, that everything that the restoration that's being done will be re-evaluated, determine, you know, what has worked and what hasn't. Similarly, the watermen have got areas set aside where they're doing tests as well on power dredging to see how effective that technique is to help re-populate the population.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about exactly what goes on in an oyster farm, do maybe a little bit of eating and maybe a little bit of teaching about shucking. 800-433-8850 is the number you can call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a food Wednesday conversation all about oysters. We're talking with Steve Vilnit, fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Spike Gjerde is the chef and owner of the Woodberry Kitchen Restaurant in Baltimore, Md. Timothy Devine is the owner of Barren Island Oysters of Hoopers Island, Md.
NNAMDIAnd Stephan Abel is the executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. You can call us at 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. Timothy, I'm sure a lot of people have a hard time imagining just what an oyster farm looks like and what exactly the work of farming oysters involves. How would you describe what you do, your process?
DEVINEIt's very interesting. We farm triploid oysters, and we start at one millimeter in size, place them into nurseries where we pump 30 gallons of water a minute pass them. Every couple days, we turn them around or turn them over to clean them and to chip them. And then when they're about five-eighths of an inch, we -- they're big enough to go into cages.
DEVINEWe lease space on the bottom of the Chesapeake. We put those cages down in the bottom, and every two to three weeks, we take those oysters out, tumble them, clean them, chip them and sort them. And then we put them back in the bay. It's actually a lot of fun, a little messy though.
NNAMDIBut I bet there's a learning curve involved here. How did you go about learning the work that it takes to farm oysters?
DEVINEI mostly just did it. The Internet helps, books help, but a lot of just trial and error.
NNAMDIDo we have any of Timothy's oysters here, Spike?
GJERDEYes, we do.
NNAMDIOh, can I sample one, please?
NNAMDIEven as you describe exactly what kind of oyster it is that I'm sampling here?
DEVINEThis is a Maryland triploid oyster. It is grown in about 17 parts per thousand salt content, which is a very sort of medium to medium-high salt content. So you get hit with a little bit of salt but not too much. And it has a nice flavor, not -- you actually taste the oyster.
NNAMDISpike, The Wall Street Journal published an article earlier this fall reporting that in the culinary world, oysters are ascendant across the entire country. They've gone from being a working man's snack to a luxury for the privileged class to something more accessible that lots of people are demanding now. Why do you think oysters are now in vogue again?
GJERDEYou know, some of these culinary transits, it's hard to understand why they kind of rise and fall the way they do. I think for us here in Maryland, oysters are kind of enjoying a renaissance in some ways, and I think it's because we've, you know, we're starting -- I think, especially based on the work of guys like Timothy, we're starting to appreciate how delicious these oysters are.
GJERDEAnd I think one of the things that I'm really loving about the farmed oysters are the fact that they really do an amazing job of kind of bringing out the nuance of the flavor based on where they're grown. So Timothy's down there by Hoopers Island. And I think, you know, like he's talking about mid-salinity, you got a nice little touch of salt but you're also tasting other things. And we're starting to really be able to appreciate, especially here in the Chesapeake, the range of flavors and saltiness and texture that these oysters really have.
NNAMDII like the term mid-salinity. Do you have a preference for oyster flavors? It's my understanding that salinity levels in the water affect the taste, and I'm now experiencing that.
GJERDEAbsolutely. I mean, you -- a lot of people love the brawny -- the really fresh brawniness of an oyster that has more of an ocean influence with higher salinity levels up around 30 parts per thousand. I like to -- I really appreciate the range, and I love to taste an oyster from, you know, the northern reaches of the bay.
GJERDEAnd as you know, as you go north in the bay further away from the Atlantic Ocean, the salinity is going to go down and eventually, you'll get to a place where salinity is below 10 parts per thousand. Oysters really won't grow there. So we've got that range from around 10 to up around 30. And I love the fact that we have, you know, that entire range to be able to enjoy.
NNAMDIWhat are some of your favorite things to do in the kitchen with oysters?
GJERDEWell, first and foremost is what you see right in front of you, which is the taken away...
NNAMDISee, I'm tasting it.
GJERDEYeah. And I'm sure Timothy's is, you know, the best thing in the world is to pull one right out of the Chesapeake and open that and eat that. There you go. And if you like it a little spicier, we brought our fish pepper hot sauce along.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. OK. I'm coughing on the air.
GJERDEAnd we got -- we have a couple of other condiments as well. But that, to me, is one of the most enjoyable things and one of the great delicacies in this region. It's been enjoyed for countless, you know, thousands of years. Certainly, when European settlers turned up the bay, they -- one of the things that greeted them along with crystal clear waters from the oysters doing all that filtering were, you know, mountains, you know, literally mountains of oyster shells that had been consumed for countless centuries.
GJERDESo this is my favorite, I would say to this day, but we also -- we have a wood-burning oven, and we love to just pop these in the wood-burning oven and give them a little roast with the, you know, minimal kind of topping so you can really appreciate the oyster. But, you know, the classic oyster stew, which is just oyster simmered in a little bit of cream flavored lightly with herbs, is another one of my favorite things especially this time of year.
NNAMDIIf you're calling and you can't get through this because the lines are busy, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can also see a video that we have there. I told you that Michael Martinez and our intern Ryan Mixon visited the Barren Island farm on Monday morning. You can see there a video where Timothy Devine actually describes the farming process, and that's at kojoshow.org where you can also ask questions or make comments. Here now is Steve in Ellicott City, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHey, thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I just -- I wanted to ask you and your guests today whether or not you thought or have any thoughts rather on a moratorium, even temporary, of oysters like we've done with other species in the bay. It seems to me that we've had so many attempts to restore oysters, but they've all pretty much failed on being over-harvested by dishonest watermen that could otherwise maybe be put to use for a couple of years helping with aqua culturing to really create a new harvest of oysters that could be taken some years down the road. Any thoughts to that?
ABELWell, there's been a lot of studies that have looked at that. And in fact, from what I've read and seen, I don't think that's actually going to help fix the issue. The watermen are already harvesting based on limits that are established by the state. And the reefs are in such a (word?) position, if you will, that by just reducing harvest or limiting it altogether, just due to salt and sediments of run-off going into bay, a lot of the beds that are currently supporting oysters would, over time, continue to sink in the bay.
ABELI mean, you've got to recognize 100 years ago, there were about 400,000 acres of oyster reefs. Now, we're down to 36,000. The reefs that used to be, you know, feet rising off the bottom are now individual oysters that are scattered. So just stopping an outright is not the solution.
ABELI think all the different groups working together like oyster recovery does with, you know, the state, federal agencies, watermen groups, environmental groups working together to restore targeted tributaries which we're doing now in, as an example, in Harris Creek, will make a positive influence. And that's, I mean, that's where I think it needs to go here in the short term.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. Stephan, I was going to ask you to talk a little bit more about what's going on right now in Harris Creek. But I think there's somebody on the phone who may know just as much about it as you do. Sofia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SOFIAHi. I'm calling from Chesapeake Montessori School, and our school is raising oysters to put back in the bay. And lately, we've noticed our oysters' bed has increased immensely. Do you guys know what's causing this?
NNAMDIStephan, do you know what's causing this?
ABELYes, I do.
NNAMDIAnd do you know the person on the phone?
ABELYeah, actually I do. She's my daughter.
ABELI would say, Sophia, it's primarily probably due to the salinity. This year has been extremely salty, if you will, which does two things. It enables the oysters to grow faster than in a typical year, which is a good thing. So we've been seeing that throughout the bay. And also a result of the high salinity, we've also seen natural spat sets or oysters naturally reproduced have been higher than normal as well.
ABELThere was a record spat set in 2010, two years ago, that the oysters -- the watermen are now enjoying because of the natural reproduction and harvest that is occurring this year. But I think it's primarily due to the salinity that the oysters are growing. So the water conditions are right, the food and water is right. And so they're growing faster than normal.
NNAMDISophia, do you have any other questions? This would be a good time to ask for additional pocket money, I might think.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sophia. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Stephan, how was the Harris Creek side chosen for a project that big?
ABELThis is also going back to 2009 when the state set aside Harris Creek as one of 20 tributaries, so it's actually being restored in the bay. There was an executive order that was done a few years back on the call for 20 tribs to be restored by 2025, and Harris Creek is the first one targeted for Maryland. The state, and this is being primarily Department of Natural Resources and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which is also our -- the Maryland's core hatchery that helps produce, produces the spat on shell.
ABELAs well along with NOAA, the Army Corp of Engineers and other environmental groups and the watermen basically work together and targeted and looked at Harris Creek for it's water quality value, the bottom topography, the existing population, several different thresholds and determine that Harris Creek is the first one that really start and the chance that it wasn't too big that we actually could have a measurable impact in a short amount of time.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How much attention do you pay to where the oysters you eat come from? If you prefer oysters that come from another part of the country than the Chesapeake, why is that? 800-433-8850. Here is Bill in Toddville, Md. Bill, your turn.
BILLThank you, Kojo. I would like to ask, given the fact that the oyster harvest has -- looks like it's going to double or maybe even triple this year. And if that turn continues, what would you say to potential future oyster farmers about the market? Is the market going to expand to, you know, handle that kind of capability, or the oyster farmers' going to be competing with the wild oysters that are doubling and tripling as the years go by?
NNAMDIHere's Steve Vilnit.
VILNITI think what we're going to see is these aqua culture oysters are developing their own market. We're going to find that restaurants in this are like Spike's are going to focus more on local oysters. Historically, in this are, we haven't had a lot of aqua culture going on, so they haven't had the opportunity to use these local oysters. Right now, you'll see oysters from Malpeque, oysters from the Pacific Northwest.
VILNITWhat you'll start to see is more and more menus featuring multiple oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. And also the wild oysters is a little bit of a different market. A lot of those products go to the shucking market versus to the half-shell market. So it's not quite in competition with each other, so I don't think we're going to see a problem with the aqua culture industry being held down.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bill.
NNAMDIStephan, how are recycled oyster shells being used in all of these -- this restoration? I've read that restaurants can literally recycle tens of thousands of shells in a week. Is that something you do, Spike?
GJERDEDefinitely. In fact, these shells right here that we're saving are going to go -- we're going to give them to Stephan to take back with him and -- as we do with every shell that we shuck at Woodberry.
ABELWell, several years ago, we determined that basically oyster shells' unlimited resource. In a given year working with the Horn Point Hatchery down at Cambridge together with Oyster Recovery, we'll produce and plant about half a billion oysters a year. And unlike Tim who produces individual oysters for grow out, we actually use the shells, the medium by which we attach the baby oysters before we plant them back out in the bay.
ABELSo oyster shells a key ingredient, and up until a few years ago, most of those of have been just thrown away in the landfill. And so we started a shell recycling program that came about from a bunch of shuckers up in Baltimore that really showed us how many shells were being thrown out. We started a program, and this year, looks like we're on track to collect about 16,000 bushels or about 600 tons worth of shell.
NNAMDIOn to Bob in Annapolis, Md. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBYeah. Hi, Kojo. I grew up in the Annapolis area in the '60s and '70s in one of those typical neighborhood that sits over one of the many coves of the Severn River and other rivers like that. And I spent a lot of time fishing and crabbing when I was a kid. And then a new neighborhood came in and had all the water just drained right into the cove. And they all started putting fertilizer down to have beautiful lawns.
BOBAnd then a couple of years later, we couldn't even row our boats in the cove anymore because we'd stick an ore in the water and just be clogged up with algae. I was just wondering, what's being done for, you know, stopping this, like, neighborhood run off of fertilizers and things like that and not just for, like, new neighborhood but for older ones as well?
ABELYou know, I think a lot of the -- in the case of Severn River and other tributaries, there are local conservation groups who are actually keeping an eye on that as far as, you know, recommending other solutions for, you know, homeowners to reduce the run off, reducing fertilizer, only doing it in the fall vice doing it in the spring. I mean, I think that individuals, if they want to be proactive, can be.
ABELI do know that the state -- and we work with DNR on this one -- is homeowners can grow their own oysters as part of the Marylander's Grow Oysters program where they can learn some of the issues that affect oysters, if you will, growing their own oysters. And at the end of a year, they get put back on sanctuaries. There's actually in Severn River, there's a huge area that's been restored between the Route 50 bridge and the Naval Academy bridge, if you're familiar with that area, where, I mean, there's 100 million oysters just in that area alone.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bob. And speaking of being proactive, I think that's what Tony in Great Falls, Va. wants to talk about. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYThanks, Kojo. I love your show. Last year, we read something in the paper about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a program called Grasses for the Masses. And they provide you everything you need to grow -- these grasses are then planted in the Chesapeake Bay or, in our case, in the Occoquan. Those then spread rapidly.
TONYThey're native grasses, and they help capture the silt. The whole purpose of this program is to trap the silt before it gets down to the oyster beds. And it was -- there's assisted living facility my wife works at. They grew a batch. We grew a batch at home. And then we went out in the...
NNAMDIYou're breaking up, Tony. You need to stop. Uh-oh. Too late. Tony, I'm going to put you on hold, and we're going to take a short break. And if, when we come back, you are still there, you'll be able to tell us exactly what you did. If you'd like to join the conversation, you, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Are oysters part of your plan for the holidays? How do you plan to enjoy them? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBack to Food Wednesday. We're talking oysters with Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of the Woodberry Kitchen restaurant in Baltimore, Md. Steve Vilnit, he is the fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Timothy Devine is the owner of Barren Island Oysters at Hoopers Island, Md., and Stephan Abel is the executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. We got a tweet from Jerry, who asks, "Where can you find aquaculture oysters to buy?" Timothy, I'll start with you. Where can we get your oysters?
NNAMDIWhere else can we find them, Steve?
VILNITI think you -- right now, if you go into just about any other local restaurants, these are all aquaculture oysters. You know, you'll see the shucked oysters at the grocery store in those little, you know, glass pints or in the gallons. Those are mostly wild oysters. But if you see something in the half shell, it's typically going to be an aquaculture oyster. But I know you can go right next door.
NNAMDIWhole Foods open.
VILNITTo Whole Foods, yeah. Whole Foods is carrying Maryland product in there. Those -- the oysters that they have in the case today are coming from the Choptank River.
NNAMDISpike, what seasonal rules do you follow at your restaurant when it comes to oysters? Are you a only-months-that-end-in-R kind of guy when it comes to oysters?
GJERDEI think are some -- there used to be probably a little more to that than there is now. I certainly appreciate oysters, I think, mostly in the colder months, and there are a couple of reasons for that one. The thing is that some of the other things that we really love out of the Chesapeake tend to fall off this time of year -- for example, crab.
GJERDEBut the good news is is that guys like Timothy are growing triploids, as he talked about earlier, and these oysters are good to eat and available all year round. So I think we can kind of put a little less emphasis on the R month kind of thing that we used to go by and enjoy Chesapeake oysters 12 months out of the year.
NNAMDITriploid oysters changing the game. We move on to Gary in Sterling, Va. Gary, your turn.
GARYThank you. Out here in Loudoun County, we're west of you all by about 36 miles. Seventy-eight percent of our streams, according to the local Loudoun Times-Mirror says that they're compromised, and at least 78 percent of the people have these verdant, green lawns. And the biggest problem I see is, after a heavy rain, is the Potomac changes to red if it rains in Virginia because of the clays, and the Potomac turns yellow if it rains in Maryland.
GARYEverybody's got all these manicured lawns, and the grass is so short that, you know, it can't slow down a raindrop. It's, you know, less -- consumes less CO2, produces less oxygen, less...
NNAMDIThat's something we've discussed on quite a few occasions on this broadcast, Gary.
NNAMDIBut it's my understanding that you also had a comment about shucking.
GARYOh, yes. The most important thing I found about shucking oysters -- I used to pay $11 a bushel for them back in '74. Hey, I've worked in old houses built in the 1800s, and digging around them, I found a lot of oyster shells. The people in the old days used to really -- even up all the way into Keyser, W.Va., back in the 1800s, people ate them. Oh, most important thing was don't hurt yourself.
NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for that tip, Gary.
NNAMDITimothy, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask because there are people in our audience -- except for Gary, of course -- who need help. What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn how to shuck an oyster? People who are good at it make it look so easy, but for a lot of people, it's not that simple. Apart from not hurting myself, what do I need to know?
DEVINEIt's not too simple. It does take a lot of practice. There are two ways of doing it. There's one from the front end, which most people think is the correct end, and one from the butt end or the hinge end. I prefer the front end as the hinge naturally opens. But mostly just don't hurt yourself and practice.
NNAMDIAny other advice from anybody else? Spike?
GJERDEIt is -- it takes a lot of practice to be a great oyster shucker. I think what I would recommend is if you're a -- if you go to an oyster bar or you're at an event where you see a great shucker -- and we have some world champion shuckers in our midst in this part of the world -- is to watch a seasoned veteran do what he does, and you'll even be able to start to see distinct styles of shucking if you watch somebody who's really good at it.
NNAMDIThank you for your call and your advice, Gary. Here now, Jerry, in Columbia, Md. Hi, Jerry.
JERRYHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My question is how do the water filtering capabilities of oysters compare to other shellfish like clams?
ABELI don't have specific numbers, but oysters filter about 30 to 50 gallons of water a day, especially during the summer months. I mean, oysters are more dormant during the winter, but it's also based on the actual tissue and the size of the oyster themselves. So, normally, the bigger the animal, the more that they filter, and I had mentioned before about the oyster reefs themselves with barnacles and mussels.
ABELAnd what you'll find and why oysters are so important is because the habitat they form, the mussels will actually filter or attach themselves to the shells, and the quantity, while they're smaller, there's more on the actual reef itself. So they end up filtering more than the actual oysters themselves or barnacles or other critters that filter it in around these reefs.
NNAMDIJerry, thank you very much for your call. Steve, the last time you and I talked a year ago, we spent a lot of time discussing what you do to connect chefs like Spike to people who are on the water, getting food at the source. What's the learning curve like when it comes to oysters?
VILNITI think everybody -- and a lot of it is just a misconception that all oysters from the Chesapeake Bay taste the same, you know? And it's what we've seen from a lot of the chefs, is that, well, they -- they're just not that salty. They just don't have a lot of flavor to them. What we've done is taken them to many different farms. You know, it's great that we have so many new farms opening up in the area.
VILNITWe can take them around and actually show them that one side of the river taste completely different from the other side of the river. It's just all about, you know, the different salinity levels and the different minerals in the different areas. So I think that the biggest thing to learn is don't assume all the oysters taste the same. There's a lot of different things that you'll see from oyster to oyster.
NNAMDIThe learning curve is taste, taste, taste.
VILNITTaste, taste, taste.
NNAMDIHere is John in Daisy, Md. John, your turn.
JOHNYes, sir. Thank you for taking my call. My question is basically about septic systems in Howard County. It seems like a far reach. But we're having questions about septic systems having to do with the effect on the bay life and what does that have to do with how it affects the bay.
ABELThere's some interesting statistics out there as far as what directly impacts the bay. Twenty percent of the overall bay's pollution actually comes from up north down the Susquehanna. Thirty percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus -- and this would be coming from septics as well -- actually comes from the air, so then the remainder actually comes from in and around Maryland and within the watershed. So the bay's watershed is actually significant. It goes from New York to Virginia, encompasses 64,000 square miles and 17 million people.
ABELSo every little bit, whether no matter how small or how big, has a direct impact. So the, you know, the septics, like runoff with the previous question, you know, fertilizer, I mean, it all has a direct impact as far as adding excessive nutrients and phosphorus to the water. The good thing is that the oysters help, you know, that creates algae, if you will, which is the what the oysters eat, so oysters actually help minimize that. But certainly, the more you can prevent from running in the bay in the first place is the better way to go.
NNAMDIJohn, thanks for your call. I think Dick in Crofton, Md., has a similar issue to raise. Dick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DICKWell, I just wanted to comment on a caller before about what's being done locally to -- on doing restoration preventing runoff fertilizer, et cetera. In Anne Arundel County, they created a watershed stewardship economy, which is a partnership between the school systems and the public works department of the county.
DICKAnd they actually train watershed stewards in how to manage communities and watersheds and runoff, and there are consultants and advisers. So by now, this program has been going for a number of years, and they have stewards throughout communities in Ann Arundel County that give advice to communities in what to do when their program is going on on the ground, on the Severn and in other watersheds.
NNAMDIWell, thank you for passing that on to us, Dick. Thank you for your call. We got an email from Ann, who says, "I was an oyster gardener, one of many, with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for about 10 years. My deceased husband and I had four cages and took about 30 pounds of oyster shells with spat each spring. We turned them in in the fall when they had about doubled in size and could be planted on a reef.
NNAMDI"I actually got to demonstrate planting at an event at the Marine Museum in Solomons one year. Each of us oyster gardeners didn't -- don't raise a lot of oysters, but combined, I think we made or make a difference. And I get to talk a lot about oysters. I can't wait to go out and eat oysters." Still a lot of the oyster gardeners around?
ABELThere are. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has a program that you can participate in. And I also mentioned that the state of Maryland has a program as well, Marylanders Grow Oysters. There are several thousand individuals that every year grow oysters, and that accounts for about three to 4 million oysters that individual growers do grow. And the benefit of the program is the fact that it's a educational program. It really teaches individuals and citizens within Maryland on what it takes and the importance and the vital role that oysters play in the bay.
ABELBut when you look from a scale perspective, the state's efforts with the oyster recovery when you're doing half a billion oysters a year in a 100 acres at the time, I mean, that's where the core restoration is working. But having individuals around the state participating in the program is equally as important just from the education piece alone.
NNAMDINat in Newport News, Va. Nat, your turn.
NATHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. A great show. I -- from Newport News and in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, the oysters are obviously a big part of seafood culture. I've been eating them since before I care to remember. But there is sort of a local legend or, I guess, story that I've heard that when folks first started arriving in the Chesapeake Bay from Europe, the water in the Chesapeake Bay was clear almost to the bottom, like what you might see in the Caribbean today. And I want to see if your guests on the show today could comment on that or lend any credence to that source.
NNAMDILast time Spike Gjerde was on this show, we talked a lot about the comparison and influence of Caribbean cuisine on Chesapeake Bay cuisines. Spike, I guess that's where it all started.
GJERDEThat's certainly one possible way to look at. I think there is, you know, many of the, you know, the documentations early -- European exploration to the bay do, you know, include accounts of the crystal clearness, the clarity of the water and being able to see all the way to the bottom wherever they were. And a lot of times, what they were looking at were gigantic oyster reefs that were doing a lot about filtering and keeping that water clear.
NNAMDIIndeed. Oh, and Spike brought me some more of the snake oil organic, made with organic fish peppers. It's a hot sauce that I do certainly enjoy and certainly reminds me of the Caribbean. Here is Benjamin in Washington, D.C. Benjamin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENJAMINHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Quickly, I just wanted to know, I understand that the oysters filter between 30 or 50 gallons a day. And I wonder, does that make the oyster an unclean animal? I mean, where does the toxins go if it filter that much toxicity out?
NNAMDIYour turn, Stephan.
ABELIt's -- eating the algae is -- so the water goes through at the gills, if you will. And I'm not a marine biologist, but it basically eats the algae out of the water and processes it. It's much like, you know, we eat food. So there are no toxins. It's just eating plants.
NNAMDITim, did Superstorm Stanley -- Sandy have any effect on the health of the bay's oysters this year? The storm obviously had a pretty profound effect up and down the entire coast.
DEVINEIt did. It turned up a lot of sediment, which is settling on oysters. It definitely knocked oyster cages around that were under the water. And anyone using floating oyster cages definitely probably felt some loses. But mostly it was the sediment that got kicked up by the 80 mile an hour winds.
NNAMDISteve, any observations about Superstorm Sandy and the effect it had?
VILNITWe actually got very lucky in this area. We didn't get hit nearly as hard as our friends to the North. Like Tim said, you know, basically the sediment landing on the oysters is a big problem. You know, these guys -- after harvesting the reefs, the guys -- the aqua culture, of course, you know, turning these oysters over, it's helping to get the sediment off and then free them up again. So there wasn't as much damage in this area as there could have been.
NNAMDIFinally, we got this email from Junette, (sp?) who I think I know. Junette says, "Are oyster women responsible for the expression shucking and jiving?" Or you know the history of this?
NNAMDIDoes anyone know the history of this? Sorry about it, Junette. You can simply say you made it up yourself. And I'm afraid that's all the time we had. Spike Gjerde is the chef and owner of the Woodberry Kitchen restaurant in Baltimore, Md. Spike, thank you for joining us...
NNAMDI...and for bringing all of the goodies with you.
GJERDEYeah. Eat more oysters.
NNAMDII certainly will. Timothy Devine is the owner of Barren Island Oysters of Hoopers Island, Md. Timothy, thank you for joining us and allowing us to spend some time with you yesterday.
DEVINEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIOh, it was a day before yesterday, day before yesterday. Stephan Abel is the executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. Stephan, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Steve Vilnit is the fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Steve, always a pleasure.
VILNITThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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