With the presence of historic places like Cross Street Market, it is no wonder why Baltimore is lauded as ‘Charm City.’ Nestled into the heart of Federal Hill and just blocks away from the Inner Harbor, the market is a favorite of visitors and locals alike. One restaurant in particular, Nick’s Oyster Bar, can be found brimming with purple-clad fans on Raven’s game days, drinking beer and slurping down oysters that are served up with a smile by local personality and shucking pro, George Hastings.
Standing amidst the hustle and bustle of the market is Hastings, a cheery man in a flat cap, greeting passersby with a warm smile on his face and a hearty laugh. As he interacts with customers, it quickly becomes clear that this man is a cherished local celebrity.
Hastings, a decorated oyster shucker, grew up in Southwest Baltimore, learning his craft at the age of 14 from his neighbor, a native to the Northern Neck of Virginia along the Rappahannock River who brought his skills to Baltimore during the Great Depression when he came looking for work. “I would come to Cross Street Market with my neighbor to pick up oysters to take to different venues,” Hastings said. “At that time, Nick’s was not here and the seafood part of the market was owned by someone else until 1971. Mr. Nick had three sons that were all in my age group – I got to be friends with them and started shucking oysters for them once the restaurant opened.”
After years honing his skills at oyster roasts and other catering events, he began participating in and exceling at local shucking competitions. “I entered a few shucking contests and was fortunate enough to win those,” explained Hastings, “I also entered the National Oyster Shucking Contest and won that twice – and for that I got to represent the United States at the International Oyster Festival in Galway, Ireland.”
The National Oyster Shucking Contest is held in Saint Mary’s County, Md., every year during the third weekend in October. The festival has been around for 49 years with 2016 marking the 50th anniversary. “It’s going to be a big time,” said Hastings in reference to the 50th anniversary celebration. “Lord willing, I will be there. I have to keep the young guys honest,” he continued.
Shucking competitions are based on speed and presentation, participants are timed on how long it takes to open two dozen oysters. “There is a lot of anticipation, there is a countdown then you just go into a frenzy of opening two dozen oysters as fast and furious as you can. When you’re finished you put your hands up and nine out of ten shuckers will be shaking from the adrenaline,” said Hastings
At that time, three watermen judges grade the shucker’s handiwork, adding penalty seconds for every infraction that they find. They are looking for the oysters to be whole, uncut, not punctured and severed loose from the shell with no dirt, grit or mud particles in them.
Just like most things, perfecting a shucking technique takes time and dedication. “The old saying is, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice,’” said Hastings. When competing, he aims to shuck a dozen oysters per minute as clean and as fast as he can. “I hope not to get any more than a minute in penalty seconds. You can win with a [total] time of three minutes or less,” he explained.
There are many ways to shuck an oyster, and in Hasting’s opinion, any way that you can open it – whether with a knife, screwdriver or hammer – is just fine. His preferred method, however, is a traditional mid-Atlantic stabbing style as opposed another popular method of opening the bivalve by its hinge. Both styles can be viewed in the tutorial below.
For those working to perfect their form, Hastings recommends wearing gloves and proceeding with caution as the shells are very sharp and often cut more people than the knives do. Additionally, for those that enjoy eating oysters, “don’t put the shell in your mouth,” he warns. “Slurp it up off the top like kissing or pick it up with a fork. If there is bacteria in and around that oyster, it will be on the outside of the shell, not the inside. It’s the silt and stuff that is on the outside that could be detrimental to you.”
In addition to shucking, Hastings also gives back to the cause by partnering with the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) to help with shell recycling, restoration events and fundraisers. “A very dear friend of mine, Vernon P. Johnson Jr., and I contacted ORP about looking to restaurants for recycled shells. ORP was looking for shells at the time to put spat on to grow oysters and we noticed that there were a lot of restaurants and caterers that would throw the shells away. We thought that if they [the shells] could be captured, it would be a great way to collect shells – and that’s the idea that started the Shell Recycling Alliance,” explained Hastings.
One oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water per day and can play a big role in improving water quality, which is why restoration efforts aim to restore populations to healthy levels in the Chesapeake Bay. “It’s a sustainable thing, we plant oysters, we can eat them, we save the shells, we plant more oysters and continue with the cycle,” said Hastings. “My wish is for the Bay to be as healthy as it was prior to the industrial revolution. That’s the biggest thing that knocked the Bay into the weeds – so to say,” he continued. “I think we can come back from that now, but we must remember that it took us 100 years to get here, restoration is not going to happen overnight. It could very well take another 100 plus years to get back to that.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Nutrients flowing from the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore make up a disproportionate amount of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus polluting the estuary, according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The land to the east of the Bay, known as the Delmarva Peninsula, includes parts of western Delaware and eastern Maryland and Virginia, and makes up just seven percent of the watershed’s total land area. But per square mile, Delmarva receives nearly twice as much nitrogen and phosphorus as other areas in the region, leading to degraded water quality in the rivers, streams and groundwater that flow to the Bay. These nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight and create low-oxygen areas, or “dead zones,” that suffocate marine life.
“On the Eastern Shore, the concentrations of nitrogen in groundwater, and nitrogen and phosphorus in surface waters, are well above natural levels and are among the highest in the nation,” said Scott Ator, a USGS hydrologist and co-author of the study.
According to the report, agricultural production—including fertilizer and manure applied to cropland—accounts for more than 90 percent of the nutrients reaching the lands of the Eastern Shore. When more fertilizer and manure is applied to the land than is needed by crops, nitrogen builds up in the groundwater and phosphorus builds up in the soil, and these nutrients eventually move into streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
Under the clean water goals in the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to reduce the amount of nutrients entering local waterways—including working with farmers across the watershed to implement “best management practices” or “BMPs” that curb agricultural runoff. Findings from the USGS report will help improve the placement of these practices to reduce the nutrient pollution reaching groundwater, streams and the Bay.
Nine months after the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program is seeking public input on our plans to achieve the goals and outcomes of that landmark accord. These twenty-five draft management strategies address the thirty-one outcomes of the Watershed Agreement and outline our plans for the implementation, monitoring and assessment of our work toward the protection and restoration of the Bay, its rivers and streams and the lands that surround them.
“These plans are the detailed outlines of what may be the most extensive collaboration in the nation,” said Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources and Chair of the Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee. “Each one is connected to every other, just like our lands, river, streams and the Bay. As we move forward, we welcome people’s input so that we can strengthen those bonds, becoming even more focused, intentional and unified in our vision of a healthy Bay ecosystem.”
Our efforts toward achieving the Agreement’s thirty-one interconnected outcomes will benefit communities throughout the watershed—across Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.—as we work to maintain the health of local waters, sustain abundant fish and wildlife populations, restore critical habitats, foster engaged and diverse communities through increased public access and education, conserve farmland and forests, and improve the climate resiliency of the region.
“Resiliency in nature comes from diversity. Like the natural ecosystem, our work draws strength from increasing the diversity of our partnerships, increasing local actions for watershed-wide results,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “When people from distinct communities across the region – from citizens to communities to local governments – join in the overall effort, everyone benefits.”
In June 2014, representatives from the six watershed states, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed the landmark Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. This agreement marks the first time representatives from every jurisdiction in the watershed committed to full partnership in the Bay Program and our collaborative restoration efforts.
Drafts of the management strategies are available online. The Bay Program welcomes comments on these drafts between March 16 and April 30, 2015. Interested parties can offer input by submitting an online comment or sending an email to the Bay Program.
It’s a false dilemma we’ve all heard before: “You’re either with me, or you’re against me.” In the case of the Chesapeake, we often run into a less pugnacious, but similarly false, contradiction when we talk about protecting or restoring the Bay, its rivers and streams and the lands that surround them. To be sure, there are pristine healthy watersheds that need a focus on protection, as well as severely degraded areas that need a lot of restoration. But in reality, the vast majority of waters and lands across the Bay region need efforts that both restore and protect, so that we’re bringing back clean water, healthy habitats, and opportunities to enjoy nature, while ensuring we don’t lose the ones we already have.
The January announcement of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a great opportunity to put this potent combination into practice. Through its new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) nine projects across the Bay’s watershed will receive nearly $25 million. This funding will deliver restoration and protection in key areas across the Bay’s watershed, bringing a renewed focus to critical areas of the region and new partnerships.
One funded project, the Delmarva Conservation Partnership—co-led by The Nature Conservancy and the Delaware-Maryland Agribusiness Association—offers a unique collaboration between conservation organizations, agribusinesses, government agencies and the scientific community. This partnership focuses on a holistic approach to target conservation practices—ones that both restore and protect—that will achieve the greatest outcomes. In the Choptank, Nanticoke, and Pocomoke river watersheds, partners will work together to connect improved management practices in agricultural fields, with over 1,500 acres of wetland restoration and protection.
The natural world is an interconnected system: the actions we take to build the health of our local lands and waterways go on to benefit the water, land, air and living resources throughout the watershed. When our efforts are similarly interconnected—by including both protection and restoration—we can better ensure our work benefits the health and resilience of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and all of us who depend upon it.