In the 1800s, the Chesapeake Bay contained billions of oysters. Billions! The entire Bay could be filtered in less than 3 days, a feat today that today takes more than a year. Virginia was shipping millions of bi-valves a year to fill oyster bars in New York, Chicago, and Paris, and the great Chesapeake Bay was synonymous globally with fat, delicious oysters. Then greed led to pollution and over-harvesting, causing the abundant oyster levels to decline. In 1960 Virginia produced 25 million pounds of oysters. In 1970 that number fell to 5 million. By the late 2000s that number was down to less than 250,000, which is less than one percent of production just 40 years ago.
Happily, the tide is turning in favor of the Virginia oyster. Contemporary initiatives such as The Oyster Recovery Partnership and an increase interest in Virginia oyster farming have caused huge growth in the VA oyster population. Annual harvest numbers have increased from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 504,000 bushels last year. That's a big leap in the right direction.
Through selective growing techniques, dedication to artisanship, and intelligent marketing, Virginia oysters are back on the national scene garnering prestige and daily rotation in renowned oyster bars across the country. No longer looked at as second tier half shell options, oysters from the Chesapeake are gaining favor over their northern and western counterparts due to their sweet, buttery flavors, crab-like richness, and salty finishes. This renaissance of flavor profile is a testament to the farmers being selective of where and how they farm their oysters. Oysters get their flavor from the water in which they feed, so selecting areas that are rich in food sources, minerals, and salt can really make a difference in how the oysters taste.
I am not sure if we will ever get the Bay back to where it once was, filtering itself in less than a week. This recent article, however, gives us hope of a better future, filled with better oysters. This is a winning formula not only for our oyster bars, but also for the Bay's water and inhabitants as well.