Typically, when most people think of farming, they may picture vast rural landscapes of various crops. Oyster farming, a type of aquaculture, may not immediately come to mind, but it is a fascinating practice that dates back thousands of years. It is understood that the ancient Romans practiced oyster farming until it was forced to an end by the barbarian invasions that brought the demise of the empire. Fortunately for us, oyster farmers around the world have continued and improved their craft until this very day.
Oyster farming utilizes the natural oyster life cycle we talked about in Part I of this series. As mentioned there, oyster reproduction and growth rely on salinity and temperature of the water, as well as nutrients and other elements. Oyster farmers create the optimal conditions for oysters to grow and reproduce more efficiently, whether in natural or artificial systems. This involves raising and lower water temperature to mimic seasonality and altering salinity, which can encourage oysters to reproduce and mature at faster rates. While there are many methods and techniques, there are general principles that hold across the board.
Oyster farmers will place a batch of mature oysters, or broodstock, in a system and alter the conditions to encourage reproduction. These conditions involve carefully treated water, varying water temperature to promote spawning, and other factors depending on the technique utilized. After reproduction, the larvae are placed in carefully prepared containers and tanks that are tailored for efficient larvae growth. Tanks are usually filled with relatively warm seawater for faster growth and algae that larvae filter through their gills for feed. Also, they should be routinely cleaned to avoid complications with other organisms. When the larvae reach the stage of developing a foot, they are placed in another system where they can settle on a hard surface, or cultch, to grow. Of course, as we talked about before, this is when they become “spats.”
Overall, the process described above leverages an existing phenomenon, while taking measures to expedite and harness it. There are a few techniques when it comes to cultivation.
Farmers can place the resulting spats over naturally forming oyster beds and develop, then collect them later using methods, such as dredging. Dredging is the process of extracting material from a bed of an area of water – boats or other devices can deliver this method. This is known as “bottom culturing.”
Farmers can also place the newly developed spats in cages, bags, or other containers and held near the bottom of the sea. When oysters reach maturity, the containers can be extracted for collection. This is typically known as “off-bottom culturing,” which allows for more protection and control over the developing oysters.
Additionally, farmers can place the spats on a prepared clutch within an artificial tank. The tank can be filled with water specifically treated for efficient oyster growth – specific temperature and salinity alterations.
When oysters reach maturity, they are collected for distribution, the next stage in the process. However, some oysters may not have developed enough for the market, so they are introduced back into the system until their day comes.
Throughout these various stages, oyster farming is highly labor intensive. Additionally, farmers depend on market demand and high-volume sales of their oysters for business sustainability. Check out the Oyster XO Shop to support these men and women and their efforts while continuing to enjoy your favorite delicacy of the sea.
Oyster farming is considered nonthreatening and environmentally favorable. This aquaculture practice encourages and delivers oyster population growth, which has positive effects on oceanic ecosystems. Therefore, not only are oyster farmers responsible for the production stages of the oyster supply chain, they contribute to positive environmental efforts with their work. In the next part of this series, we will discuss restoration projects and the organizations involved.
Spat to Slurp Series
Part I: Spats
It’s normal to feel a sense of detachment from the origins of our food and the path it takes to us. When you’re asking for your second… or tenth… oyster at an event, or you are enjoying them at your favorite restaurant, you may be curious about how these creatures found their way to you. This is Part I of an Oyster XO series taking you through the life cycle of oysters. We will explore their journey from the coast to you, the consumer.
Oysters generally inhabit coastal areas that provide the salinity and nutrients necessary for oyster growth and reproduction. Oysters congregate into communities called oyster reefs where they can grow and reproduce for generations. These communities comprise of many shells stacked on each other, forming shelter for other creatures of the sea. This is among the many interesting effects that oysters have on their ecosystem that we’ll dive into later in the series.
Upon maturity, which is about one to three years old, oysters are capable of reproducing, or spawning. You could say that oyster reproduction works in a domino effect fashion and occurs seasonally, as an increase in water temperature encourages reproduction. An adult oyster will release gametes (eggs or sperm) into the environment (the community mentioned above), which signals to the others that it’s time to reproduce, and they begin releasing gametes into the local area. This results in mass fertilization as eggs and sperm converge in the water. The newly fertilized eggs are fairly immobile and undergo cell division until they are considered larvae.
The oyster larvae find nourishment in phytoplankton and eventually grow a small foot that they use to find a suitable place to settle. These developing larvae typically prefer to find an oyster shell sitting around nearby, but other solid surfaces will suffice. Once settled, oyster larvae go through some physiological changes and become spats. Each spat takes in nutrients and dedicate energy to growing a shell of their own. As alluded to above, each oyster spat will grow and reach maturity at the age of one to three years old. Then, the process begins again!
When oysters reach maturity, they are also ready to be harvested. This is the next step in an oyster’s journey to us. Now, the next time you enjoy an oyster at an event or in the comfort of your own home, you’ll be aware of the hard work that oyster went through to reach you. In Part II of this series, we will discuss oyster farming and the hard work these men and women undertake to deliver this precious delicacy to us!
Personally, I’m always (and I’m sure many others are) willing to fight for the last oyster in the bucket. However, perhaps not to the point of open conflict. The popularity and profitability of oyster production in the 19th and 20th centuries led to what has been called the “Oyster Wars.” The was an ongoing struggle between oyster pirates, New England fisherman, watermen, and local governments in the Chesapeake Bay for nearly a century.
Improved harvesting technology and increased demand caused the Oyster industry to explode after the American Civil War. So, when oyster beds began drying up in coastal areas, New England fisherman tried to seize on the lucrative opportunity presented in the oyster abundant Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay was optimal for oyster production due to its size, temperature, and salinity. This led to more competition and rising tensions between legal watermen, New England fisherman, and oyster pirates for this precious delicacy that we, still to this day, love.
Authorities Attempt to Clamp Down
The Maryland and Virginia governments began passing more legislation to protect oyster harvesting by requiring permits to harvest oysters, limiting dredging, and increasing law enforcement. However, enforcement was a challenge, and ongoing conflict ensued for decades while pirates engaged in middle of the night dredging, law enforcement raided boats, and skirmishes broke out between oystermen and pirates. In time, after many successful and failed attempts at capturing and convicting dredgers, law enforcement and fishery management gradually improved in some regards. Throughout the Oyster Wars, authorities largely struggled to control the illegal dredging activity, which demonstrates the measures various parties were willing to take to secure and benefit from the value of Chesapeake Bay oysters.
Eventually, the Oyster Wars simmered down, and local governments moved to different methods to regulate the industry. Unfortunately, the overharvesting of oysters in the 19th century caused persisting damage to the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster harvesting ability. Luckily for oyster lovers today, there are various regions and oyster farms that produce an abundance of oysters for the market.