Oyster Lovers Unite

Now may be your best chance for a little raw love

After our tour, I joined a group of friends for lunch in Hog Island's idyllic picnic grove. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and we sat at a table overlooking the calm blue waters of Tomales Bay shucking our own oysters and drinking wine. Some of the hipsters eating lunch nearby had decorated their tables with linen, flower arrangements and expensive-looking crystal. It was one of the most memorable oyster lunches I've ever had.

One year later, I had another memorable oyster lunch with fellow members of the Southern Foodways Alliance at 13 Mile Oyster Company, where we hunkered down at picnic tables overlooking the muddy waters of Apalachicola Bay on Florida's Gulf Coast. Apalachicola is the premier oyster appellation on the Gulf. The rapid flow of the nutrient-rich Apalachicola River creates an ideal oyster-growing environment. While virginica oysters take two to three years to reach a 3-inch size in other parts of the country, Apalachicola oysters grow to maturity in an average of 18 months.

But the most remarkable thing about Apalachicola oysters is that they are still harvested by tongs the way oysters were harvested a hundred years ago. In between eating oysters and crabs, SFA members took turns taking boat rides out to meet the oyster tongers at work on the bay and try their hand at tonging.

John Finger, founder of Hog Island Oyster Company on Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco, uses state-of-the-art racks to cultivate oysters.
Daniel Kramer
John Finger, founder of Hog Island Oyster Company on Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco, uses state-of-the-art racks to cultivate oysters.

"We're glad our children didn't follow in our footsteps," Mary Green said as she culled oysters that her husband Tom Green brought to the surface. "This is a hard way to make a living." Mary and Tom Green are a husband-and-wife team who have been tonging for decades. Tom walked the deck of their small boat with the tongs in the water while Mary sat and sorted the keepers out of the muddy debris.

Tom dunked the 14-foot joined rakes into the water and snipped at the oysters below, then slowly raised a load to the surface. It's a lot slower than dredging oysters from an oyster lug with a diesel winch the way they do it in Texas and Louisiana, but tongers do less damage to the oyster reefs. Tom shucked an oyster and handed it to me. It was very soft and creamy, with hardly any salinity. It tasted as warm as the water.

Oyster tonging is a disappearing way of life. Ask me to choose between dripping-wet Pacific oysters from the state-of-the-art Hog Island Oyster Company on gorgeous Tomales Bay and creamy, freshly shucked virginicas in Apalachicola, a place where an older American food culture is still struggling to survive, and I have to go with "all of the above."

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In the past few years, the oyster wars have gotten out of hand. In 2003, after several deaths were blamed on Gulf oysters in California, that state passed a law making it illegal to buy, sell or transport Gulf oysters in California during the summer months. And Texas, in turn, cracked down on exotic species regulations to make it illegal for Texas oyster bars to sell the Pacific oysters and Kumamotos that are grown on the West Coast. Both states claim to be motivated by high ideals, and each has been accused of protectionism on behalf of their local oyster industries.

In the summer, Gulf oysters have high levels of vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacteria that was first identified in the 1970s and is now blamed for causing illnesses and deaths. A few big Gulf oyster companies that harvest on private leases have fought a ban on summer oyster sales, arguing that vibrio is harmless to the vast majority of the population.

It's a stupid argument. The public oyster season in the Gulf states has always been closed during the summer anyway. Regular oyster fishermen and tongers like Tom and Mary Green aren't doing any fishing. But the vibrio problem will soon be solved thanks to global warming. Oyster-borne vibrio bacterias are now causing illnesses and closing oyster beds in the summer months as far north as Washington and Alaska. That's why regulatory agencies are considering banning the summer sale of oysters in all parts of the country. "Don't eat oysters in a month without an 'R'" is not an outdated adage after all. But there are other good reasons to avoid oysters in the summer besides the health risks.

Americans seem to have lost touch with the fact that oysters are a seasonal food. In France, the largest oyster-producing country in the Western world, 80 percent of the entire oyster harvest is consumed in one week between Christmas and New Year's. The best reason not to eat oysters in the summer is that they don't taste very good—unless you import them from the Southern Hemisphere.

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It was the Clean Water Act of 1972 that got the "Great American Oyster Renaissance" started. Once we cleaned up our rivers and streams, salt marshes and estuaries that had been stagnant and clogged with algae cleared up. Crabs and fish began to appear where they hadn't been seen in decades. Natural oyster reefs came back, and tidelands where oysters had once been cultivated were viable again.

There have been problems along the way. And now the oyster industry is responding to a new set of challenges. Texas Parks & Wildlife's Lance Robinson says the state will spend some $2 million to restore oyster reefs in Galveston Bay damaged by Hurricane Ike. About half the money will be spent to dredge up oyster shells from under the debris to provide hard surfaces for oyster spats to adhere to. The other half will go to creating artificial reefs by dropping concrete chunks and other hard materials to form new substrate. But the reefs will be closed for several years after the restoration project to give the new oysters a chance to grow.

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