We've been slurping Chesapeake oysters, my Chesapeake Bay Foundation buddy Don Baugh and I, for more than 100 years between us.
And while we've known the bay in better times, we never had better oysters from it than the dozens we downed — chilled and fat and bursting with taste — over the winter holidays.
It was Chesapeake seafood at its finest, and all of it was farmed — some raised in floats in Virginia by Tangiermen Rudy Shores and Mark Crockett; the rest grown in cages in Maryland by Hooper Islander Johnny Shockley.
In an essay 35 years ago, I wrote how we bay dwellers enjoyed "a luxury afforded few developed regions on earth — not just oysters on the half shell, but oysters on the half shell caught by salty captains under full sail in century-old wooden skipjacks."
Must the rise of farming mean goodbye to the wild? And is it on balance a bad thing or just a new thing?
It was heartening to hear Mr. Shockley talk recently of a Chesapeake future that looks bright, he thinks. With good reason: He's got 4 million oysters growing out in Tar Bay off the western side of Hoopers.
Growing fast, too. Like the Tangier oysters, they are hatchery-born, disease resistant triploids — sexless versions of our native oyster — that put all their energy into meat, reaching marketable size in six to 18 months.
The Tangier oysters, harvested at 16 months, were so large I would have sworn they were three years plus — but that's my old "wild" frame of reference.
Mr. Shockley is an innovator. He has designed and built a stainless steel tumbling device that he has mounted on the side of his boat. Every month or so, his caged oysters are pulled and "tumbled," which "puts a nice cup in their shell as they grow," Mr. Shockley said.
The cup fills with meat, to the point oysters I would have dismissed as too small to shuck are, with his trademarked Chesapeake Gold brand, a mouthful. And when you're farming, "legal" size will likely become moot.
Mr. Shockley's making aquaculture equipment for other watermen, and also experimenting with a device that subjects his oysters to intense water pressure, shucking them without hand labor.
He's selling oysters for the half-shell trade to city restaurants, and he envisions a larger market for shucked meat, some to be further processed into frozen, breaded oysters and other value-added products.
The wild oystering that dominated when I wrote my essay has become about 500 watermen who report harvesting more than 100 bushels a season. Thirty-five years ago, a single skipjack under sail once took 150 bushels in a day. Now, the few remaining working skipjacks sail in races and exhibitions, dredging oysters now under power.
A recent University of Maryland report said Maryland, which historically had the bay's greatest shellfish troves, now has three-tenths of 1 percent of its original stocks of 150 years ago.
The report called for a moratorium on wild harvest, which runs about 120,000 bushels a year and sells at dockside for one-half to one-quarter the price of farmed oysters. The state has rejected that for now, saying the recent inclusion of about 25 percent of all Maryland oyster bottoms in sanctuaries is a partial moratorium.
But the emphasis has firmly shifted toward farming. Virginia has been going that way for decades, Maryland is now on board, and sanctuaries baywide are likely to expand.
Still, there's much we don't understand about oysters, and the answers might have surprising implications for the wild harvest. We don't know the relative impacts of continued harvest versus widespread oyster diseases. Studies under way may sort that out, and they might support continued harvests — or shut them down.
We also don't know how much oyster bottoms that aren't worked by watermen's tong and dredges get silted over and lost. Watermen say always. State regulators say it's more complicated.
The monitoring of the expanded sanctuaries in Maryland may show whether unworked bottoms will thrive, rebuilding the incredible habitat of natural oyster reefs over time. Or will they sink beneath the mud? Or will this vary from place to place?
Meanwhile, Mr. Shockley said we've got "the perfect protein," an industry that can grow large without environmental degradation, even enhancing water quality locally where oyster farms filter the water.
His phrase recallsH.L. Mencken, writing of his boyhood in the 1880s: "Baltimore lay very near the immense protein factory of Chesapeake Bay, and out of the bay it ate divinely."
Tom Horton, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of six books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.