6/1/10 - oysters

In today's excerpt - most of America's oysters come from the Gulf coast, in spite of what your menu might say. (A potentially troubling fact for oyster lovers given the Deepwater Horizon disaster):

"The murkiness of the Galveston Bay, or 'turbidity,' as scientists call it, came from suspended sediments and plankton. 'The Adriatic is beautiful blue,' Croatian-born Galveston oysterman Misho Ivic told me, 'but there's nothing living in it. It's sterile. Galveston Bay looks muddy because the water is full of food. Good for the oysters, good for the crabs.'

"I didn't trust him, of course. East Coast and West Coast oystermen say that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are filthy. And maybe they are. But oysters live in brackish water in freshwater estuaries, not in the Gulf of Mexico. And the scientists I interviewed said that Galveston Bay was in pretty good shape.

" 'We always fight the perception that the bay is polluted, but the reality is that the water quality overall is good,' Scott Jones, water and sediment quality coordinator for the Galveston Bay Estuary Program, told me. He said dissolved oxygen levels have gone up markedly in the last thirty years thanks to a cleanup of wastewater treatment plants mandated by the Clean Water Act of 1972.

"Misho Ivic and a marine biologist named Dr. Sammy Ray put pollution into a historical perspective for me by comparing Galveston Bay to Chesapeake Bay. Chesapeake Bay produced millions of bushels of oysters in the 1800s, before it was polluted. It now produces about 1 percent of its historic peak. Conservationists in Maryland and Virginia are making progress and the oyster harvests are increasing, but since the surrounding wetlands were long ago destroyed, the long-term prospects are limited.

"In 1900, Galveston Bay and a couple of other small bays in Texas produced a record 3.5 million pounds of oyster meat. But modern harvests regularly exceed that. In 2003, the largest harvest of oysters ever recorded was taken—6.8 million pounds, nearly double what was produced at the turn of the century.

"New York Harbor and Chesapeake Bay lost their oysters due to industrial pollution. Galveston Bay is at its historic peak production. In 2003, Misho Ivic's oyster company alone outproduced the entire Chesapeake Bay. ... Places that were famous for their oysters one hundred years ago, like Chincoteague Bay, Maryland, and Blue Point, Long Island, aren't the centers of oyster production anymore. But people still clamor to buy oysters with famous names, so oystermen engage in a 'shell game,' if you'll pardon the pun. Texas oysters make great stunt doubles. They're sold as 'Blue Points' in many oyster bars across the country. They're also served in Washington, D.C., and Maryland oyster bars, where people assume they're eating Chesapeake Bay oysters.

"I once asked the waiter at a Houston chain restaurant called Willie G's where the oysters came from. Hilariously, he told me the oysters I was eating were Blue Points from Long Island. I asked him to bring me the bag tag. By federal law, oysters must be packaged with a tag stating their place of origin and date of harvest. This allows health authorities to trace the origin of the oysters in case they cause any illnesses. Oyster bars aren't required to show the tag to customers, but if they refuse, it's usually because they're trying to put one over on you. I bet my tablemate five bucks the oysters came from Galveston Bay. That was some easy money.

"Check out the statistics on commercial oyster landings and you can probably win a few wagers yourself: Annual totals for 2003 (pounds of oyster meat)—Gulf Coast, 27 million; Pacific Coast, 11.5 million; East Coast, 2.8 million."


Robb Walsh


Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover's World Tour




Copyright 2009 by Robb Walsh


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