The Time Has Come to Talk About Oysters
By Louise L. SchiavoneSeptember 13, 2019
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings […]
“Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”
“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
Around the world, marine scientists, watermen, consumers, and advocates of all kinds have turned their attention to what is now the “dismal thing”: the decimation of tens of thousands of years’ worth of oyster reefs. Indeed, all is decidedly not well on sandy beaches: oysters are turning blue, not so much because they've been slurped raw by the dozens or steamed or exquisitely fried for fisherman’s platters everywhere, or at least not just because of that, but because of the array of culprits involved in manmade environmental degradation. Three advocates for oysters — an oyster whisperer managing a hatchery, a high-end European whisky brand, and a hardworking Chesapeake Bay oysterman — are trying to regenerate this ancient form of sea life. The stakes are sky high. As these advocates and unlikely allies put it, oysters are a keystone species. They are literally the filters of bays and estuaries and even of whole oceans. They create the habitat other species like mussels and barnacles and clams and fish need to survive. It’s time, then, as Lewis Carroll’s Walrus puts it, to talk about oysters.
The Oyster Whisperers
Writing of his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, English explorer Captain John Smith marveled at how the oysters “lay as thick as stones.” Reporting many kinds of shellfish, in addition to “sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, [and] stingrays whose tails are very dangerous. Brits, mullets, white salmon, trout, sole, plaice, herring, conyfish, rockfish eels, lampreys, catfish, shad, perch of three sorts,” his account featured a vibrant environment replete with hardened reef structures bracing and protecting a multitude of marine life forms as well as the shores of the Bay.
By worrying contrast, the most contemporary count from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates that the oyster population in the Bay is on the ropes, now at less than one percent of what it was in Smith’s day.
Just in the last 10 years, the count has dropped from roughly 600 million market-sized oysters to below 300 million last year. State regulators estimate that, in more than half of the Maryland Bay waters, harvesting is exceeding sustainability.
“To have a stable population, you need [each] oyster to … replace itself basically,” Stephanie Tobash Alexander tells me. Project manager at the Oyster Hatchery at the Horn Point Laboratory (part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay), she hopes to replenish the Chesapeake by cultivating new generations of them.
You might well ask, what exactly happened to the oysters?
It is, alas, the story of the oyster everywhere: overfishing, oxygen-depleting agricultural run-off, water pollution in general, parasitic outbreaks. And then there’s the impact of the many manifestations of climate change. Torrential rain-producing storm systems can dilute saline streams and waterways, even as extended record-high scorching heat can intensify salinity, foster disease, and create oxygen-starved dead zones.
Alexander estimates that a healthy adult oyster filters about 50 gallons a day.
The Horn Point Laboratory is the largest oyster hatchery on the eastern US coast, generating hundreds of millions of microscopic would-be oysters. Alexander began her career there as a college intern 23 years ago. The hours are long and not your typical five-day week. She quips that “the oysters don’t take the weekend off!” Sometimes she has to take her two children to work.
Alexander is one of the rare people who could tell you how to differentiate between male and female oysters. Presiding over spawning tanks of brood oysters, she points to a female, describing to me how “she’s shooting her eggs toward us.” If it’s a male, then it will “tend to spit out [its] sperm sideways.”
The tanks mimic a riverbed where, in uncontrolled conditions, oyster gametes swirl around each other and collide: “The eggs are fertilized and then water currents drift them away. Then they are at the whim of mother nature for two or three weeks while they’re developing.” In here, she says, it’s different: “We are taking care of them,” becoming “their moms and dads.”
“My old boss used to tell me, ‘They talk to you.’ I would think, ‘Whatever. That’s crazy.’ But they truly do! They tell you if they’re happy, they tell you if they’re not, and right now, they’re not happy.” This year, oysters in the Chesapeake, as well as the oysters in the tanks filled with water from the Choptank River on the shores of the laboratory, have been slow to reproduce, slow to grow, slow to thrive. “The Bay is very fresh,” explains Alexander, “because of all the fresh water we’ve had from all the rain, so we’re salting all of this to about nine to 10 parts per thousand. We are at six parts per thousand right now, [not enough to] really encourage reproduction. By making it saltier we’re getting them in the mood a little bit more and then we can produce the larvae.”
But it’s been a slog.
The goal at the hatchery is to produce “spat,” microscopic baby oysters that, with luck, will affix themselves to hard surfaces like shell or rock. This summer, however, spat have not shown up in anything like the volume of years gone by. Stressed when the spawning season began in late spring and early summer, the oysters still spawned but, as Alexander says, the larvae are not responding, and, even more worrisome, these larvae are not eating, or if they are, only very little, which means they’re hardly growing.
“Last year, we produced five billion live mature larvae, and from that we estimate we produced 1.3 billion spat on shell,” says Alexander. This year’s yield might be half that, or less. The oyster hatchery’s spat is distributed to various locations and end users, beginning with the Chesapeake Bay’s restoration efforts in protected sanctuaries, followed by private and public fisheries raising stock for consumption, community efforts like oyster gardens designed to raise water quality in places like city harbors, and, finally, research. She coordinates closely with marine biologists and environmental regulators, all of them advocating for the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Alexander is not alone in her mission.
Indeed, there are plenty of other oyster whisperers. She is sometimes confused with “the other Stephanie,” Stephanie Westby, oyster restoration coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And then there’s one of the most purpose-driven and hands-on research scientists involved in efforts like these: oyster whisperer Boze Hancock of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team. For him, no oyster restoration project is too far to travel — he has been involved in 170 different reef restoration projects in eight countries around the world, including both coasts of the United States. If there are two kinds of scientists, one reveling in academic knowledge and communicating only with other scientists, then Hancock is emblematic of the other kind: he wants everyone to know what scientists know. When an oyster population returns from near-extinction, more often than not it owes its survival to marine biologists like Hancock.
Oysters and Whisky
Oysters, it turns out, can create strange allies. Across the Atlantic, in the Highlands of Scotland, marine biologists and conservationists are formally collaborating with a whisky company to regenerate an oyster population in an estuary of the North Sea.
One of the most prized, most delicious of oysters anywhere is the Native European flat. Devoured in the first century by conquering Romans in what is now Great Britain, it is a delicate oyster that, as the name suggests, plates “flat” for elegant table presentation, and commands a good price. At market, these oysters are sold in the United Kingdom for a starting price of £1.50 a piece. Served at table in a high-end restaurant in London, a customer can expect to pay as much as £5 a piece. At the same table, it pairs delectably with a fine single malt whisky — coincidentally!
Five-star Scotch Whisky maker The Glenmorangie Company has chosen this oyster as the centerpiece of its signature marine restoration project — in part because they were once upon a time native to its local waters, and in part due to its market cachet. The company plans to regenerate an entire reef, with the hope of its eventually teeming with four million flat oysters.
It’s envisioned that, with their bubbling and filtrating action, literally a biological oxygenating pump system, the oysters will stimulate biodiversity by improving the marine environment of the Dornoch Firth, the waters off the shore of the distillery. For decades, the remains of whisky-making had been funneled into the Firth. Barley husks and yeast, albeit organic, gobbled oxygen that marine life counts on. But now, this high-profile company is undertaking a high-stakes gamble. If it’s successful, it may become a beacon for corporate environmental commitment and an exemplar project for reef regeneration globally.
Or it could become a cautionary example of irrationally exuberant environmentalism. When the project was imagined seven years ago, the company discovered that these native oysters were scarce in UK aquaculture in general, and certainly four million of them were nowhere to be found there. After extensive and sustained scientific research, 12,000 oysters have now been introduced into the Firth, all of them intended for reef regeneration and not for market. Thousands more oysters will be introduced in incremental installments. But there is no guarantee that a parasitic oyster killer or a harsh winter or a dramatic weather event will not wash the company’s investment out to sea.
Added to the unpredictability of nature and concerns about supply choke points are the geopolitical pressures of Brexit. The Dornoch Firth is a European Marine Protected Area.
Investing in oysters is a strategic calculation by tough business people at a 176-year-old Scotch whisky company. It’s worth saying that the distillery itself has its own cachet: it is fortress-like and historic, neat as a pin at every stage of production, with uniquely tall stills, each the height of a full-grown giraffe; the stills give the whisky its signature light floral notes and the still room the look of a brashly Scottish Highland cathedral.
But why oysters? And why now?
The fact is that whisky all over Scotland has collided with the environmental realities of the 21st century. National regulators in the past decade put the Scotch whisky industry on notice that energy-guzzling stills and the undisciplined disposal of the remains of whisky-making would need to change.
For the Glenmorangie Company, part of the wine and spirits groups of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, that change was first tackled by commissioning a multi-million-dollar state-of-the-art German-manufactured anaerobic digestion (AD) facility. The AD plant digests the organic materials, the “biomass,” that goes into the whisky-making (the barley, yeast, and water). The biomass generates energy and produces, at the end of the process, a black gelatinous sludge and a purified liquid. The sludge, carrying traces of copper from the stills, is trucked to barley farmers to enrich their soil, which, as it turns out, is copper-deficient. The distillery’s AD facility is designed to accomplish 95 percent of the task of reducing the chemical oxygen demand of the whisky-making outflow.
The remaining five percent would be undertaken by the star of the show: the oyster reef. The endeavor was dubbed the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project, or “DEEP.”
Glenmorangie executive Peter Nelson explained recently at a scientific conference of marine biologists, sponsored by the whisky company in Edinburgh, Scotland, “water and the ocean are a really good thing for us. We want to do things outside of making whisky that improve our reputation and thereby our sustainability. It’s part of our corporate social responsibility.”
Hamish Torrie is Glenmorangie’s chief of Corporate Social Responsibility. He concedes the original notion of recreating an oyster reef on the shores of the Glenmorangie distillery was daunting, to say the least. “I can remember feeling, ‘Crikey! How do I pull this one off?’” recalls Torrie. “Why not try to be transformative by being ambitious?” he concluded.
A proud Scotsman of long and distinguished family heritage, Torrie speaks with an accent that is classic British, not Scottish. He holds a graduate degree in history, not business. And like so many people in Scotland’s whisky business, he is engaging and articulate in a posh-rumpled sort of way. He has steered the DEEP team to award-winning recognition, in part by intriguing consumers with the value-added story of his brand’s environmental gambit. “Ninety percent of completing a project is collaboration, persuasion, giving people the inspiration to buy into what you’re proposing,” says Torrie. “It’s not about the doing, it’s about the communication of the doing.”
Torrie has spent the past five years addressing community and business groups, possible donors to DEEP and journalists, and building a network of government advocates, conservationists, aqua-culturists, and scientists.
One of those scientists is Dan Laffoley, principal advisor on marine science and conservation for the Global Marine and Polar Program for the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Founded in 1948 with members from over 170 nations, the IUCN is the advisory body on nature to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. Laffoley travels the world in order to gather, study, and discuss developments in marine science. His home is in England, but he says he lives on British Airways. The DEEP project seeks his opinion, but he is not paid for it. Environmental restoration, in his view, is man’s moral imperative after centuries of active environmental degradation.
Glenmorangie calls its project an oyster reef, but currently it’s still an oyster bed. Reefs, the rock-hard shell structures that develop as oysters grow and multiply, take decades to develop. Whisky does, too.
“If you look at certain parts of the drinks sector, they invest in a different way against time,” observes Laffoley. “Politicians invest against three years. Industry invests with a focus on each year. Glenmorangie invests over a considerable period of time because that’s how long it takes to make the product. Their customer base is faithful to them. They buy the latest special releases. So you’ve got a very time-based commitment which matches well with trying to do what they’re doing with oyster reefs.”
The point of the Glenmorangie story, says Laffoley, is this: “You can talk the talk. And we see the FTSE 100 has the ‘Green Awards,’ which I’m sure has considerable value as a beacon for what industry should be doing. But in the middle of this you actually want to have real things happening in real places. That’s what’s exciting about the Glenmorangie model: the fact that you do have real things happening in real places that are groundbreaking.”
“What we’ve done is we’ve managed to take what seemed a limitless bounty at the outset and took too much out too quickly,” says Laffoley. “And with these living reefs, we went to a level where we broke up the structure that had grown up over tens of thousands of years probably, and we did that in a few years. Reefs then rapidly deteriorate and we see that in all the catch figures. These things have really fallen down and then getting them back is really hard work.”
Back in the Chesapeake Bay, that’s what oysterman Don Novak has found.
It’s a hot summer day in Solomons Island, Maryland. Waterman Don Novak casts a wary eye over the sparkling Chesapeake Bay and to a sky that’s half sun, half clouds. “The rain can stay far away,” he says, as if wishing will make it so.
It doesn’t. In a matter of days, the region will have had what one meteorologist would call a 200-year event. In Washington, DC, and surrounding areas, torrential rain totaled at least four inches in one hour. People were standing on top of their submerged cars waiting to be rescued and homes were ruined. The National Weather Service reported that, in some places, the Potomac River rose four feet in 30 minutes. Chris Legro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said there was a less than one percent chance of this type of rain in any given year.
In the Chesapeake Bay, it’s another fresh water drenching for the once mighty oyster, a creature who thrives on warmth and salinity and surrenders when overwhelmed by rain water. And it’s a setback for lifelong oysterman Novak and others like him who count on the Bay for its natural bounty. The good times, he recalls, were amazing.
Novak grew up in the 1960s and ’70s on a waterfront farm on Kent Island, on the Chesapeake Bay. His father was an aeronautical engineer. Novak liked the water. One summer break during high school, he joined a buddy at a job building boats.
“One day we were in the shop, the owner was having a party and he wanted oysters,” Novak recalls. “He said, ‘Come on, we’re gonna try and catch some oysters.’ And off I went — jumped in a skiff with him and rowed out. He was up there messin’ around and couldn’t catch nothin’.
"I made a smart comment like, ‘You can’t catch enough to eat.’ And he said, ‘Hey, tough guy, you’re so smart, why don’t you jump up here and do it!’ So I grabbed this pair of rickety nasty old tongs and piled the oysters so high! It just came natural. I could feel ’em on the bottom. I always could. I guess I just have the knack.”
Novak came of age as an oysterman in the 1980s. He could not be persuaded to spend another day in a classroom after high school graduation. For his 18th birthday, his mother gave him a set of 18-foot-long oyster tongs. As for his dad, he could see that his son was not going to follow in his tracks as a rocket scientist. So he told his son that if he were determined to be an oysterman, he should be the best oysterman he could.
That seemed easy enough then, when every day was exploding with promise. “It was so easy,” sighs Novak. “Get up in the morning all charged up and ready to roll and have just so much fun. It was just as easy as goin’ out there and pickin’ up money. Rollin’ out of bed and knowin’ that they’re there. The oysters are there.”
“Back in the day,” as he would say, Novak would catch his limit of oysters by late morning — 25 bushels per person (300 oysters to a bushel), $9.00 a bushel. With a licensed “culler” aboard — someone who picks through the oysters to make sure they’re large enough to keep — an oysterman in those days could take 50 bushels a day. By his own account, he’d then head to lunch, sit at the bar, buy drinks all around. Twenty-dollar bills would fall out of his pocket but he wouldn’t care.
“There’s no better feeling: pulling into the dock, and you’re the high-liner. You’ve got more oysters than anybody. Pull your drag irons up and say, ‘See ya, suckers! I’m outta here!’” Novak says, his blue eyes dancing. He is the Hollywood actor version of a lifelong Chesapeake Bay waterman: tall, tan, fit, tousled white hair, not a single wrinkle. Novak’s wife Gwyn is equally charming and the owner of a gleaming, high-ceiling waterfront cooking school, No Thyme To Cook, in Solomons Island, Maryland. They work in tandem. She prepares what he catches. After 22 years of marriage, they have endured the rough times and savored the great times, and they are obviously in love.
Novak has a couple of boats. One is a small working vessel. The second is a historic 54-foot-long wood boat, Half Shell, built in 1928 in Perrin, Virginia: a classic Chesapeake Bay “buy boat,” used in the early 20th century to purchase catch from working oyster boats and transport them to market. It’s a rugged, well-maintained, jaunty vessel that flies the tobacco leaf flag of Calvert County, Maryland. Its plentiful wood features give it a clubby feel. Small tour groups hire Novak for water outings, replete with picnic provisions from the No Thyme To Cook kitchen. The tours are one of the typically creative strategies Novak has pursued to roll with the punches of the economy and the environment.
“We thought it would never end,” Novak recalls of his early oystering years. “I remember Eastern Bay working 22-foot tongs. You could see clear to the bottom. I was in probably 18 feet of water.” As “pumps and bivalves,” he says, describing the oysters, “they filter everything.” “They’re taking in plankton, algae, whatever they’re feeding on and put the rest back. In the ’80s, they completely filtered the Bay every two days. There was oysters everywhere you went. The whole Eastern Bay was covered with oysters.”
To survive on the Bay, to pay your bills and maintain a home and family, you need to be versatile and have a survivalist’s understanding of all of the interdependent webs of marine life. “Believe it or not, a lot of what’s in this Bay, our Bay here, the Chesapeake Bay, revolves around an oyster bar,” Novak says with the authority of a man who needs all of this to work. “The bigger fish are feeding on the little fish. The little fish are feeding on the life around the oyster bars. You start messing with one side of things and there’s no oysters — well, there’s no little fish, and no big fish, it all goes hand in hand. Everybody depends on everybody else. It all goes back to the lowly little oyster hangin’ out down there.”
When the oysters retreated, he turned to clams, crabs, and rockfish. Novak is still joyful about fishing. He’s joyful about everything, it seems. He’s still tonging for oysters, beginning at summer’s end, in the “r” months, when spawning season is over and the air is crisp, and oysters are in their best-rested, well-nourished, most luscious state.
To fish in the Chesapeake Bay, a license from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is $1,000 a year. To fish oysters costs an additional $300. The state distributes books and charts to license holders who are then expected to know which reef restoration areas are off-limits. Now, more than ever before, the Bay is strictly policed.
In his early years as a waterman, “if I caught more than my limit or did something I wasn’t supposed to do, I’d get a $50 fine, and you could get as many fines as you wanted,” Novak recalls. “If I could catch $300 or $400 more per day by being over the limit, I’d take a chance. Who cares? It’s 50 bucks. Now they assess points to your commercial fishing license and they’ll take your license. You’re done. Once you’re blackballed, you’re done.”
Novak is worried there may be even more harvesting restrictions on the horizon. The limit on oysters is now 16 bushels per person, and that will pull in about $60.00 a bushel. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen now with the numbers being way down,” he frets. “It’s not just the mortality rate. They just didn’t grow. It’s a trick now when you think: where am I gonna go, what am I gonna do. These died over here, or there is none here. It takes a simple job and makes it hard when you don’t have product.”
“It’s like I told you before: I just knew oysters would be there forever. I never in my mind ever thought they would go away.”
It’s easy to sink into depression about where the planet, its lands, and its oceans stand. Laffoley cites the work of researchers who project that, by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there will be fish.
With so many challenges, it’s up to the oystermen, the fishermen, the chefs, the consumers, the scientists, the academics, the governments, the NGOs, and businesses everywhere to help the world reverse course in any multitude of ways. “What we need is grand ambition, direction, and leadership from politicians to make these things happen,” says Laffoley. “At the end of the day when we look back on this era, history will recall the names of the companies, the names of the organizations, and the names of the individuals that actually did lead and do things. History won’t remember the steering committees that said ‘maybe’ because they’re still hedging their bets. They don’t realize we need to get out of this mess. There is still time, but not a lot of time to do it.”
Louise L. Schiavone is a Senior Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School in Baltimore and Washington, DC, a journalist, and a contributing newscast anchor at NPR.
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