For those of us who live along the Chesapeake Bay, it’s hard to imagine looking out beyond the shoreline and seeing oyster reefs protruding above the water in clusters so mighty that some waterways were impassable or too treacherous to navigate. But that is exactly what the first European settlers encountered when they arrived in the Bay area in the early 1600s. Fast forward to today and we find the oyster population to be less than one percent of those historic levels, decimated in the past 200 years by overharvesting, loss of habitat, pollution, and parasitic diseases. Oysters play a vital role in the Bay’s ecosystem by creating a marine habitat that supports dozens of other species, encourages the growth of bay grasses, and by filtering water at the rate of 50 gallons per day per oyster.
TOGA Knows Oysters
Thanks to increased awareness, government agencies, environmental organizations, and private citizens alike are all working to restore the Bay’s oyster population. One such organization is the Tidewater Oyster Gardening Association (TOGA), an invaluable resource for individuals who want to learn the art of growing oysters.
Terry Lewis, current president of TOGA, recommends joining the organization ($15.00 annual membership) to take full advantage of the education, workshops, special events, and camaraderie of growing oysters. TOGA is a non-profit organization established in 1997 to promote the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries through oyster cultivation. TOGA’s main goal is to educate people of all ages in oyster aquaculture methods by participating in over 25 educational outreach events each year. Thousands of adults and young students have been introduced by TOGA to the benefits of growing your own oysters and, most importantly, to the awareness of the importance of helping to improve the ecology of the Bay.
Where Can Oysters Be Grown?
The location for growing oysters successfully, and whether the oysters will be safe to eat, relies on a few key requirements.
- The water depth needs to be a least one foot, even at low tide. Oysters feed by filtering water and ingesting microscopic food particles (plankton). They will grow faster if they stay submerged, and are more likely to survive the cold months by staying underwater, rather than being exposed to sub-freezing air temperatures. Boat traffic is not a factor.
- The salinity of the water at your site needs to be 10 ppt (parts per thousand) or greater. The higher the salinity, the faster the oysters grow. The salinity level also affects the taste of the oysters, with oysters grown in saltier water tasting more salty, and lower salinity water producing a more buttery flavor. Salinity zone maps are readily available online and in TOGA’s publications. You can also test your water’s salinity with a hydrometer.
- Current sanitation information for your prospective site can be researched by viewing online maps that show recommendations set forth by the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Shellfish. They monitor the bacteria levels in coastal waters to determine the safety of harvesting shellfish. The maps are updated about four times a year. Even if your location is considered unsafe for harvesting/consuming shellfish, you can still grow oysters, and when ready to harvest, transport them to a “clean” site for two weeks and they will cleanse themselves of any harmful contaminants.
Oyster Growth Containment Systems
Once you have determined your site is viable growing ground for oysters, you have a wide choice of containment devices. You will also need a pier or a piling for attaching the container. TOGA explains that the methods include the use of floats, suspended mesh bags, and fixed bottom racks or cages. Each grower must consider characteristics of the growing site and his or her ability to handle the weight of the containers. The seed oysters you will purchase are tiny and will need a very small mesh to contain them. As they grow, they should be transferred to a container with larger mesh. The bigger they get, the bigger the mesh size. The three key points of the container are: minimal flow obstruction; ease of maintenance and handling; and adequate predator protection.
The initial investment to grow up to 1,000 oysters is about $150.00
Get a Permit
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission issues oyster gardening permits that authorize you to grow oysters in public waters for your own consumption or use. The permit is free and can be found through TOGA. (Download Permit Application) Your permit will help the agency keep track of the growing oyster population and its impact on water quality.
What Will It Cost to Get Started? The initial investment to grow up to 1,000 oysters is about $150.00. A Taylor 2’ x 4’ container can be purchased at a local hardware store for $129.00 and it will last for years. You can also make your own containers. For 1,000 seed oysters the cost is about $25.00-$35.00. Again, TOGA is a great resource for suppliers and details about your initial outlay for oyster gardening equipment.
Harvesting the Oysters
Oyster growth rate is dependent upon the salinity of the water and the availability of food, as well as the variety of the oyster. Most oysters will reach market size, which is 3” across, at a year to a year-and-a-half. To harvest, simply raise the container, gather the oysters and clean them up with a stiff brush and water before steaming or shucking. Just like with vegetable gardening, patience is a requirement. But after the initial outlay of money and set-up, a minimal time commitment is all that is required to monitor the growth of the oysters, clean them occasionally, and make sure they are growing and have adequate room in their container.
What if I Don’t Want to Eat the Oysters? Not everyone likes to eat oysters. If you simply wish to enjoy the fun hobby of growing oysters and the satisfaction of knowing your actions are improving the water quality of the Bay, oyster donation is a great option. Several state organizations hold “oyster round-ups” for building up reefs and oyster sanctuary habitats. Contact TOGA for information on how to participate.
Written by Carolyn August for Rodgers & Burton –
Carolyn is a writer and designer who has been working in the communications field for over 25 years. She will take on any topic to research and write about, and especially enjoys taking complex subjects and making them easy to understand. Often called a “renaissance woman” by her friends and colleagues, her many creative passions include writing, ceramic arts, music, fiber arts, gardening and winemaking. She and her husband share their Virginia farmhouse with two dogs, one cat and a pair of bald eagles who nest in their woods. When not creating, Carolyn prefers to be paddling on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.