American History of Oysters

Recorded history of the New England settlements have also indicated a passion for eating oysters. Oysters were so plentiful and tasty in colonial times that they were shipped to Europe. They were consumed by the entire social spectrum - poor people gathered them in person while the wealthy dined on them as delicacies in fancy restaurants. Great barges piled high with oysters were routinely docked at riverside in large cities to serve the culinary needs. In order to service the needs of such magnitude, oyster fishermen employed everything from small boats with rakes and tongs to small ships with great drag nets sweeping the estuary floor.

While some more popular oysters were transplanted from place to place in the 19th Century, the fertility of the oyster itself was able to keep pace with the demand. As discussed previously, a single female oyster issues thousands of seeds into the ocean each summer. Even if a tiny fraction of the seeds are fertilized and hatch, the numbers are enormous. When the water is clean and disease-free, the oyster itself is clean, edible, and delicious.

It was disease that killed the native Pacific (Olympia) oyster at the time of the Gold Rush in California. The sawdust from the growing timber industry also polluted the mouths of rivers where the fresh water meets the sea - the home of an edible oyster. By the 1930's, the Pacific Coast oyster industry was all but depleted. Alas it was the imported Japanese oyster seed that rejuvenated the West Coast oyster industry. Raising oysters from seed prospered briefly and valuable harvesting techniques were learned. World War II ended the wartime importing of Japanese seed. The industry was staggered by the loss of its source of oyster seed. After the war, scientists in the US finally mastered the techniques necessary for creating viable oyster hatcheries - we learned how to produce oyster seed in a controlled artificial environment.

The Atlantic Coast oyster managed to survive the enormous consumption that occurred in 19th Century New England but not the industrial pollution of the waters surrounding the larger cities. The oysters were there, but because the oyster consumes the water, the magnitude of human sewage in the water made the oyster into a food source that was tainted. As healthy edible oysters diminished in numbers, they also were diminished by disease.

Modern day oyster aquaculture is really only about thirty years old. From the lessons of West Coast oyster farming and others around the world, marine biologists have learned how to create the proper feeding and growing conditions that allow thousands of tiny oysters to be fertilized "in-house" so to speak. The tiny seed oysters or spat as they are called, are sold to oyster farmers who lease space in our estuaries, bays and river mouths. Through the use of perforated bags, farmers monitor the growth progress of the oysters and continually sort them by size and quality. The algae-laden water passes through the bags and feeds the oysters. The oysters are tested for disease in laboratories and the techniques for improving their health and culinary value are constantly refined. These modern sea farms can raise thousands of tasty oysters to supply the ever present demand.

The fate of the edible oyster is no longer independent of human society. Like so many species of wildlife, the oyster needs scientific help to survive. There is confusion among those who consume oysters - many of us may think we are eating native original creatures when actually we are often consuming the product, one way or another, of sea farms. Farmers plant the "seed" and harvest the oysters just like farmers on land feed chickens to harvest their eggs. There is a difference, however, a land-based farmer can uniquely mix and supply the feed for a chicken or a cow. Once it is in the ocean, an oyster usually cannot be "fed" by an oyster farmer. The farmer can monitor the temperature and salinity of the waters that surround the oyster bed. He or she can move the perforated bag up or down in the water. The farmer can relocate the "farm". But the US aquatic farmer cannot feed his flock of oysters. In France, where oysterculture is many centuries old, farmers do place oysters in self-contained tidal shoreline beds where they provide their oysters with specific types of algae to affect the taste of the oyster. They even change the color of the oyster's flesh.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, during the time humankind has inhabited the planet Earth, civilization has presided both over the vast depletion of a natural form of life and more recently the rejuvenation and domestication of it. The experience of consuming a raw oyster has not changed significantly since the first person did so. Perhaps we use a knife made of steel and the guy in a loincloth used a sharp rock. Nevertheless, as you glance up at the afternoon sunlight and down at the open oyster in your hand you can share a culinary moment with even your most distant ancestor.