Love Those Delmarva Oysters

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Here is an update a story we did about America’s love affair with the oyster.

Click here to download our recipe for oyster stuffing.
Oyster season is now underway and news reports say that many of the oysters harvested so far have been disappointing. However, watermen have hopes of things improving. Here is an updated story from our archive about the history of this quintessential Delmarva seafood.

Charlie Pertocci, is an historian and former game warden, who lectures about our seafood heritage and has organized a local seafood festival or two. I asked him to tell me the history of America's love affair with the oyster.

Charlie Pertocci:
"Tourism, and its relationship to seafood here on Delmarva, has its roots at the end of the Civil War. This came out of the loss and misery following the conflict. Cities became over crowded. Alcoholism was on the rise to becoming a way of life. Illnesses like tuberculosis were on the rise. So people wanted out - and escape which led to the development of places like Atlantic City, New Jersey and Ocean City, Maryland. More and more vacationers began to come to the beaches."

"The men who fought in the Civil War missed the camaraderie of their war service. They began to form hunt clubs. This was not just about hunting but reflected their nostalgia for the friendships and bonding they experienced while they were in the Army. This was another reason that tourism began to increase."

"Whether travelers visited Wallops Island, Wachapreague, or Ocean City and Fenwick, you can see old photographs of vacationers holding up stringers of fish that they caught. Fishing was a big part of their trip. This was before people spent their time working on tan lines."

"Fishing heritage has its roots going back 150 years. It developed slowly. In the 1920's you start to see sport fishing grow as an attractions. Delmarva cities start to grow in population. More ethnic groups began to emigrate here bring their own culinary desires. They were looking for fish similar to what they were used to, to prepare their favorite dishes. So, commercial and sport fishing had an important impact on our cultural and economic development."

"Well it had become a sign of wealth and status to eat oysters. At the same time it was the food of the common man. Just like hot dog stands in New York people would belly up to a street stand where you they were roasting or shucking oysters and selling them for a penny or two a piece with nickel beers. We could not satiate the desire for oysters, which led to its decline."

"New York City for example had over a thousand oyster houses. Today there is only one left it is called the Oyster House, which is in Grand Central Station which is still there and it was founded in maybe 1886. The oyster has been an iconic seafood product for Americans for a long time."

There are folks who can taste the difference between Pacific or Olympia oysters form the American west coast or Maine Pemaquid. Charlie says it is all about the water.

Charlie Pertocci:
"Here on the Eastern Shore our claim to fame is the salt oyster. The salinity of the water where oysters are harvested determines how salty they are. As a species they will tolerate wide swings in salinity, so you find them not only on our coastal bay regions but throughout the Chesapeake all the way up to places like Rock Hall. So the quality of the water has an effect on the taste of the oyster: the more salty - the higher the price. Chincoteague salts became famous at one time."

One aspect of their history in our region that Charlie did not go into was the notorious Oyster Wars. As early as 1719 Delaware and New Jersey set up a leasing system to regulate the oyster beds in the Delaware Bay estuary. In 1830 the states of the Chesapeake region began restricting fishing in their waters to their state residents.

But, competition was steep and watermen had trouble acknowledging state lines when they were out on the water. Confrontations on the Chesapeake escalated into violence. In 1868 in order to enforce the law and police the conflicts, the state of Maryland created the Maryland Oyster Navy which eventually became the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

Many notorious incidents of this turbulent period have been recorded. One minor escapade that I found amusing happened on March 4, 1883. The Virginia fisheries police had heard the captain of the Dancing Molly, a Maryland oyster pirate ship hanging out near one of their inlets was ashore and mistakenly thought the ship was any easy target. The wife and daughters of the captain actually were on board and in response to the police gun fire those expert lady sailors and had no trouble getting back to the safety of Maryland waters much to the surprise of their would-be captors who cheered when they slipped across the state line.

The hostilities over oyster territories continued until 1959 when a waterman caught in the act of illegal dredging was shot and killed by a Virginia fisheries police officer. This shocked all involved into ending the so-called Chesapeake Oyster Wars.

Today the commercial oyster season runs from October 1st through March 31st. The three states in our region regulate where, how much, and what size oysters, watermen can harvest. The first month of the season is reserved for people using hand tools like tongs to bring up the shell fish. During November things open up for the dredging operations. On the Chesapeake side, in Virginia, some watermen feel that there are simply too many licenses issued and too few oyster beds open for them to harvest from. In Maryland, watermen have similar sentiments.

According to NOAA statistics in 1880 there were about 75 million pounds of oysters landed in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. In recent years that number hovers at about or below 400,000. The environmental group the Chesapeake Bay Foundation refers to the oyster beds as the coral reef of the Chesapeake Bay. As water filters they are critical to the long-term health of the estuary, And, their success as a species is a key indicator in judging the state of that health.

Early in the 2000's the Oyster Recovery Partnership was founded to help restore and grow the Chesapeake oyster fishery. Oyster shell recycling and aquaculture oyster farming projects are now underway around the region. Scientists and volunteers are trying to replant oyster spats to revive old beds. It takes a couple of years for the spats, or juvenile oysters, to mature. Marine fishery scientists carefully monitor their progress and the diseases that could devastate an annual crop.

In 2015 President Barack Obama signed executive order 13508, an extension of the Clean Water Act of 1972 calling the Chesapeake Bay a "national treasure", and ordering the restoration of oyster populations in ten of its tributaries by 2025. Oysters in the Delaware Bay are also being cared for through the efforts of groups like the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Task Force.

Writer Jonathan Swift is quoted as musing: "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." In fact, there are many ways to eat oysters: raw, steamed, roasted, fried, or stewed. I enjoy just about all of them, though my favorite is roasted on the grill. Here's hoping that the scientists and the watermen continue to work together to assure the perpetuation of this this species which is so important to our environment, our economy, and our culture.

Click here to download our recipe for oyster stuffing.