The world is your oyster

Published 8:20 pm Tuesday, November 11, 2014

By “Biff” and Susan Andrews

The bad news — Virginia’s oyster population is at 5 percent of what it once was. The good news? Populations, harvests, water filtration, and marketing are highly successful and growing.

When the colonists arrived in 1607, the James River could barely be navigated due to the size of the oyster reefs. Because of eddies, the James was the most prolific producer of spat (baby oysters) known to man.

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Harvesting, disease, more harvesting and more disease (remember MSX and Dermo from the late 1980s?) have reduced the population to its current level. But — more good news — programs to restore oysters are working well, and the population and harvests are reflecting this. Last year the value of the oyster harvest was $22 million — 500,000 bushels, up from 23,000 in 2001.

A single adult oyster filters the algae and dirt and nitrogen from 50 gallons of water a day. It stands to reason that one of the most efficient ways to clean the Chesapeake Bay is to create thousands of oyster reefs. It’s all working as planned.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe named November Virginia Oyster Month. He also announced the creation of a Virginia Oyster Trail. Thus, all over the eastern half of the state — as both sides of the Bay and the Tidewater region all have delicious shellfish — there are dozens of festivals celebrating raw and roasted oysters.

A few interesting facts:

4″Chesapeake” is an Algonquin word meaning “Great Shellfish Bay.”

4The life span of an oyster is 20 years.

4Oysters have been around for 15 million years.

The basic Eastern oyster is “Crassostrea virginica,” a plump oyster that reaches about 4 inches. They are grown on private beds leased from the state; on public grounds, where harvesters must pay to hand tong or mechanically reap the sea bottom; and in aquaculture operations.

The aquafarms produce oysters year-round in cages and on ropes and on artificial reefs. The days of “must have an R in the month” are long gone.

The income from licenses and taxes is used to create more reefs and improved environments, which also clean the Bay, a win-win situation. Besides, the oysters are delicious.

Each area of the state grows oysters with a unique flavor determined by the amount and type of freshwater inflow in the area.

There are seven oyster regions in the state: Seaside Eastern Shore (very salty), Upper Bay Eastern Shore (more sweet, little salt), Lower Bay Eastern Shore (salty, but not like seaside), Upper Bay Western Shore (mainly sweet, Rappahannock oysters), Mid Bay Western Shore (buttery), Lower Bay Western Shore (sweet and salty), and Tidewater (salty and sweet, varying from the James to the saltier Lynnhaven.)

Two final items. First, try opening oysters with a “churchkey,” one of the old triangular beer can openers. They work.

Second, oyster stew is not a chowder. Don’t add potatoes, bacon, onions, parsley or any other flora or fauna. Drain the liquor from a quart of oysters. Heat it to just below boiling point. Add a quart of whole milk or half and half, 2 tablespoons butter, salt and pepper to taste. When piping hot but not boiling, add the oysters and stir till their edges crinkle. Pull the saucepan off the burner and let it cool completely. Reheat slowly at serving time. Oh, my.

November is officially oyster month. It’s your patriotic duty to eat some.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at