Eastern Oysters from Virginia.
MARKET REPORT | BUYING TIPS | HEALTH / NUTRITION
The big news in the oyster business is a continued surge in the production of both farmed and wild oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. Now that regulators in Maryland allow oyster farmers to lease lands, that state is starting to enjoy the same oyster renaissance as Virginia oyster farmers on the other side of the Bay. Harvests in Virginia jumped past 500,000 bushels in 2013, growing another 25 percent to reach the highest levels since the mid 1980s.
As more farms in Maryland come on line, harvests there could soon surpass Virginia’s. In 2013, Maryland watermen harvested 488,000 bushels, the best oyster harvest in 15 years. Furthermore, the population of wild oysters in Maryland has more than doubled since 2010 and recent population surveys indicate there are more oysters in the water since the state began population surveys in 1985.
While Bay oyster stocks are healthy, harvests are still a fraction of the 15 million bushels harvested out of the Bay in 1884. An indication of just how robust Chesapeake Bay oyster production is is the fact that Bay oysters are being trucked down to Louisiana for shucking, a dramatic reversal of the situation just a few years ago when Chesapeake shucking houses trucked oysters up from Louisiana to stay in business.
At the same time the Bay oyster industry is booming, oyster producers in Louisiana and Florida’s Apalachicola Bay are struggling. Production in Louisiana, historically the leading oyster producing state in the country, is off 70 percent since the triple whammy of Hurricane Katrina, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill and government efforts to increase freshwater runoff into the Gulf to flush chemical pollutants from the Mississippi waterway.
Meanwhile, oyster producers in the Pacific Northwest are increasing their production and taking advantage of surging demand and prices for oysters for the lucrative halfshell trade.
Oysters prices have increased steadily in recent years and distributors on the East Coast say prices for select oysters have risen above $12/lb.
A good supply of live half shell oysters and oyster meat is available year-round. Oysters should be bought live and smell like the sea, not sulfurous. Check for freshness by tapping on the shells to see whether they close. The meat from oysters grown off the bottom in farms tends to be higher, making it a good substitute for dredged oysters. Oysters can be kept up to two weeks after collection at 36–38F in a breathable container. Buyers should look for the origin and collection date on a live-oyster shipment, which are required by law. A variety of volume measures are used, so buyers recommend insisting on easily quantifiable units such as by the piece or by the pound. Usually Olympia oysters cost the most, followed by European, Kumamotos, Pacific, and Eastern.
fresh & frozen products
Oysters from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico may carry Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which is naturally ocurring, but the concentrations increase during summer months and can be harmful to humans with compromised immune systems. Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) comes from eating oysters that are contamined with toxic algae, also known as "red tide" from the color associated with the algal blooms.
Wild Eastern Oysters
SPECIES VULNERABILITY | ABUNDANCE | HABITAT IMPACTS | BYCATCH | MANAGEMENT EFFECTIVENESS
Although the species is prolific and reproduces quickly, wild Eastern oysters are susceptible to habitat damage, disease, and over-harvesting.
Eastern oysters are primarily found in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Factors such as overfishing, disease, and habitat loss have caused Eastern oyster stocks to decline to about 1% of their historical levels. Disease has had a significant impact on the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.
Most Eastern oysters are harvested with bottom dredges. This method can damage marine habitats and reduce biodiversity. Scientists have found that bottom dredging has more of a negative impact on seafloor communities than bottom trawling, according to the Blue Ocean Institute. A small number of Eastern oysters are raised on suspension systems.
Bottom dredging used to collect Eastern oysters can kill non-targeted species. Since a number of organisms tend to attach themselves to oysters, including several mussels species, they tend to be the primary oyster bycatch, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
In Canada, oyster fishing is subject to seasonal and gear restrictions. Some Mexican oyster beds are controlled by fishermen’s’ cooperatives. The Eastern oyster is managed at the state and municipal level in the U.S. and regulations vary. The Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery is both public and leased, meaning certain areas can be leased for harvesting. Any that aren’t closed as reserves or due to safety concerns are available to the public. State agencies set regulations that govern the area, including gear restrictions, seasonal limits, time limits, and catch limits.
Farmed Eastern Oysters
POLLUTION & HABITAT | MARINE RESOURCES | RISK TO WILD STOCKS | MANAGEMENT | ECOLOGICAL EFFECTS
Oysters filter water, cleaning it so in some places oyster farming improves the habitat, although this is not universal. Pacific oysters are the most widely cultivated in the world and they are usually raised on ropes, in trays, or on the ocean floor in coastal and near-shore areas.
Farmed oysters don’t require feed so there is no loss of wild fish, and they require little or no drugs or chemicals.
Oyster farming has little risk of escapees because they aren’t capable of movement as adults. While some cultured oysters could reproduce in the wild, shellfish producers have stricter management codes than the laws that apply to the industry. The introduction of non-native oyster species to some areas, there have been some negative interactions with wild stocks. Risk of disease transfer is considered moderate because isolating oyster diseases can be very challenging.
The regulations governing oyster farming in developed countries and some developing ones are strict and include best management practices. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, farming industry practices tend to be more stringent than the laws that apply to growing shellfish.
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