The US oyster industry is about to be pried wide-open, like a bivalve muscle against cold steel. An oyster renaissance is underway along the Southeastern Atlantic. Like old times, Virginia and the Carolinas are farming succulent mollusks comparable to, if not better than, those found in the Northeast and Gulf of Mexico. Also, New York-style raw bars are shucking and serving-up these homegrown oysters by the thousands each night in the cradle of The Civil War from Atlanta to Charleston to Richmond.
Years ago, Southeastern oysters were huge—in popularity and physical stature. After stepping on American soil in the early-1600s, John Smith wrote about oysters the size of dinner plates in the rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. Also, a quick Google search will display photographs of Chesapeake watermen from the late-1800s standing atop mountain ranges of oyster shells at Southeastern canning facilities.
Since then, the abundance of oysters in the Chesapeake and along the Carolina coast has substantially declined due to over-harvesting, pollution and disease. In particular, the oyster shell driveway, a popular suburban landscaping feature throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, nearly devastated the local oyster population. Until recently, nobody understood that oysters and oyster spat like to grow alongside and attach to other oyster shells.
But now, organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and small to medium size oyster farmers throughout the Southeast are building oyster reefs and business plans that are in the process of rescuing the southeastern oyster population from the brink.
Some of the oysters being produced in the Southeast and served on the half-shell are as follows:
- Virginia: Shooting Points, Seaside Salts, Lynnhavens, James Rivers, Chunus, and Ware Rivers.
- North Carolina: Crab Slough, Bodie Island, Chadwick Creek.
- South Carolina: Otter Island, Ace of Blades, Otter Roasters, and Charleston Salts.
Some of the critically acclaimed raw-bars in the Southeast are as follows:
- Rappahannock in Richmond, VA
- Coastal Provisions in The Outer Banks, NC
- The Ordinary in Charleston, SC
- The Optimist in Atlanta, GA
The proliferation of oyster farms and raw bars throughout the Southeast is basically a win-win for the environment and seafood lovers. Oysters are basically the Brita filters of the ocean. They collect food by sifting through the water that surrounds them. This process, in turn, cleans the water in the creek beds and rivers where the oysters are located, making them more hospitable for other ocean dwelling creatures and plants.
At the same time, oysters are basically the canary in the coalmine when it comes to water quality. In other words, they are usually the first to go when disease strikes or pollution strangles a watershed. This makes oyster farming a risky business, and it keeps oyster farmers on their toes as they search for more resilient strands of oyster genetics and improved farming technics. So, support your local oyster industry, and slurp away while Southeastern oyster are in abundance.