For centuries, Chesapeake Bay residents and visitors alike have enjoyed the many benefits oysters have brought them. They’re a source of income for the watermen who harvest them, joy for the people who eat them and, for everyone else, they’re the bottom-dwellers that help filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay. But decades of overharvesting have depleted oyster stock to the point where current populations are less than one percent of historic levels. To reconcile a high demand with desperately low numbers, many in the oyster business are turning to aquaculture, or underwater farming, for solutions.
Rappahannock Oyster Company was once an oyster farm like many others; buying wild spat (baby oysters), laying them underwater on leased plots for three years and then dredging them back up. But when cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton took over their grandfather’s business in 2001, they saw a chance to revitalize the company and shake up how they farmed oysters. They began trying new approaches, such as buying seeds from a hatchery instead of spat taken from the Bay, and putting them into cages instead of directly on the river bottom.
And they didn’t just change the way they farmed oysters—they also changed how they did business. A tasting room at their farm in Topping, Virginia, and oyster bars in Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C., serve the dual purpose of bringing oysters to consumers and educating them about farm-grown oysters. Chief Operating Officer Anthony Marchetti explains that their process is more sustainable; instead of further depleting the Bay’s oyster stock, “every oyster we put in the water is one that wasn’t there before.”
Through their method of oyster farming, Rappahannock Oyster Company hopes to get their oysters to hungry customers without impacting the long-term health of the Bay. One of their goals, Marchetti says, is to take the pressure off the wild stock of oysters, to someday get back to levels where they could be harvested—with smart management—without worrying about their or the Bay’s viability.
Oyster farming is becoming the norm in Virginia. They are the most rapidly developing sector of Virginia shellfish aquaculture, and the state is number one in oyster production on the East Coast. Newcomers to the field aren’t interested in further depleting the wild populations, says Marchetti. They’re opting for aquaculture, he says, because “you reap what you sow.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
February is a month to think about the ones you love, and there’s nothing we love more than the Chesapeake Bay. From the first blue crab of the season to the last day out on the water, the Bay brings us so much joy that we have to share it. Here’s a list of fourteen reasons why we love the Chesapeake Bay.
1. Blue Crabs
No list about the Chesapeake Bay is complete without blue crabs. Not just iconic in commercial and recreational fisheries, blue crabs are a keystone species in the Bay, acting as both predator and prey to many underwater creatures. And while harvest pressure and habitat loss affect the crustacean’s continued health, blue crab populations were on the rise in 2015.
3. Smith Island Cake
Smith Island, located in the middle of the Bay on the border between Maryland and Virginia, is famous in part for the delicious cake that originated there. Consisting of eight to 15 layers, Smith Island Cake not only looks beautiful but tastes great, too. Want to make your own? The Smith Island Cultural Center has a recipe you can follow. You’ll need a lot of cake pans, but the taste is worth the clean-up!
4. The food
The Bay has too many fantastic food traditions to be bound to only one entry. From oysters and crab cakes to fried chicken and anything you can put Old Bay on, the area has a specialty for every taste. They say the best way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs, right?
5. Natural spaces
Did you know the Chesapeake Bay region has over 130 state and national parks? And that number doesn’t even include the many other community parks, trails and nature preserves. No matter if you’re on the Bay itself or elsewhere in the area, there’s somewhere nearby to visit and get in touch with nature.
6. Something for everyone
One reason to love the Bay is that it has something for everyone—mountains, beaches, countryside and large cities are all nearby. For those who like being outdoors, there are ample hiking paths and public access points. For water-lovers, there’s boating, kayaking and swimming. History buffs can visit the many historical sites dotted throughout the area, while museumgoers have their pick of art, history, science and cultural museums.
7. Year-round activities
The Bay doesn’t give you any excuses for not enjoying all it has to offer. Even when it’s too cold for lounging on the beach, there are ample opportunities to love the Bay. When you can brave the elements, there are plenty of hikes to go on and museums to visit—and when it’s just too cold to go outside, there’s birdwatching and virtual tours that make you feel like you’re out on the water. Some might even say winter is a great time for a swim!
The Bay has a long maritime history and is home to boats of all types. For generations, watermen have taken their boats out on the Bay to gather the day’s catch of crabs and oysters. Annapolis—known as “America’s sailing capital”—sits on the Bay’s western shore and is home to the U.S. Naval Academy. The Bay is not just for work, though; each year there are countless boat races, sailing competitions and boat shows where all manner of crafts glide through the water. Outside of official events, people enjoy the Bay in personal boats, canoes and kayaks.
9. The beauty
You can’t beat waking up early to see the sunrise over the Bay, or watching a fog roll in over the water. They may say that love is blind, but looks are just another reason why we love the Chesapeake Bay.
10. The Atlantic Flyway
One example of the Bay’s rich diversity of wildlife is the Atlantic Flyway, a migration route that many birds follow up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The Bay’s prime location in the middle of the route gives us the chance to see birds at the beginning, middle or end of their migration. Birds such as the Canada goose begin their journeys up north in Canada and make their way south to the Bay-area for winter; other birds, such as the osprey, spend their summer months in the Bay and continue further south for winter.
Lighthouses have been a part of the Bay since the first one was built in 1792. But these beautiful structures are more than iconic landmarks: of the 74 lighthouses that originally aided sailors, over 30 are still standing and 23 are still in use. The Bay’s lighthouses stand as a symbol of the area’s maritime history and serve both a functional and aesthetic purpose.
12. Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
Not only do these dogs make adorable puppies, but they can grow up to be valuable companions. Named for the region in which they were bred, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever—or Chessie—is said to be descended from two Newfoundland dogs that survived a shipwreck off the coast of Maryland and were bred with local retrievers. Perhaps due to their maritime history (but mainly their genetics) these dogs are excellent swimmers. They are prized waterfowl hunters and have been known to retrieve hundreds of birds from icy waters in a single day. These dogs are more than workers, though, and make great family pets.
13. The history
The Bay has a rich and full history going back hundreds—even thousands—of years. There is evidence of people living here at least three thousand years ago. Today, historical sites are dotted throughout the region, from the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. No matter what period of history captures your interest, there is somewhere in the area for you to visit.
14. The people
What would the Bay be without the people who live here? The Bay’s prime location and many resources attract people of all types; farmers, artists, fishers and politicians all call the Bay home and make it what it is today. We might not all talk the same, but no matter how you say it: we love the Chesapeake Bay!
Why do you love the Chesapeake? Let us know in the comments!
Commercial and recreational fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay are an important part of the region’s culture, economy and ecosystem. But as key species in the estuary’s food web, fish like striped bass and bluefish rely on “forage”—the smaller fish, shellfish and invertebrates that underwater predators feed on. According to a recent report from the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), a better understanding of this aquatic forage base could help support a healthy and balanced Chesapeake Bay.
Despite their importance in the Bay ecosystem, uncertainty remains as to the species that make up the forage base and how they interact with their environment. In the report, managers and scientific experts from across the region discuss the current level of knowledge and what additional information would help experts better manage forage species.
Key forage species listed in the report include the bay anchovy, mantis shrimp and several types of small, underwater invertebrates such as amphipods and isopods. Some of these species, like Atlantic menhaden, are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) or by states in the Bay region. But, the report states, most of the forage base is not currently being managed. With a better understanding of key forage species, the habitats those species rely on and the interactions between predators and the forage base, experts can build plans that support management of predator species and the Bay ecosystem as a whole.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners are committed to improving their understanding of the role forage fish play in the Bay ecosystem, as well as supporting efforts to restore and protect critical fish habitat. Information included in the report is aimed at helping partners meet those goals.
The report, Assessing the Chesapeake Bay Forage Base: Existing Data and Research Priorities, is available on the STAC website.
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
Think of a food, any food. It could be what you had for breakfast, or something you’ve been craving. Once you have an image in your mind, imagine what that snack would look like without the existence of fruits, vegetables or grains. Would it completely disappear? Would only a portion remain? Now ask yourself, “What is the common link—the necessary life source—behind the production of our food?”
The answer lies in the simple act of pollination. It is nearly impossible to think of something within our diet that can exist without it. Pollination, or the transfer of pollen between like species of flowers by wind or wildlife, leads to the formation of healthy fruit and seeds. It is estimated that nearly one-third of all plants and plant products consumed by humans depend on bee pollination alone.
Educators at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, Maryland, understand this fact and work to teach others about the important role that pollinators—like bees, butterflies and bats—play in our ecosystem. For the past 17 years, the center has partnered with the Anne Arundel Beekeepers Association (AABA) to provide a home for more than 80,000 honeybees each year. When needed, AABA donates bees to Arlington Echo to replenish the center’s four outdoor bee boxes and two indoor observation hives. While the outdoor apiary is used for ecological purposes—providing habitat for the bees—the observation hives are used to teach children and adults alike about insect anatomy and life cycles, pollinator survival, community roles and math.
While it started as a recreation center, Arlington Echo quickly evolved to support authentic, hands-on learning. Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center is part of Anne Arundel County Public Schools and has been for 45 years. In fact, it is visited by every fourth grader in the county. “Education facilitates change,” said Sheen Goldberg, Teacher Specialist at Arlington Echo. The volume of students they reach each year provides a valuable opportunity to plant the seed of environmental awareness in many young minds. Here, people learn to make the connection between pollinators and the food they eat.
“One of the major issues we face today… is a lack of knowledge about the environment and where things come from,” said Melanie Parker, Coordinator of Arlington Echo’s Environmental Literacy and Outdoor Education Department. “[Food] doesn’t come from the grocery store. And it’s not just our kids [who are unaware]. Sometimes, it’s parents. Sometimes, generations don’t have that connection with the land and nature. There’s not that experience or exposure. All people see is that chicken comes in a package and isn’t an animal that’s running around on the ground. There is a detachment to where our stuff comes from.”
Spreading knowledge and linking people to their natural environment is a vital part of Arlington Echo’s mission. By connecting the dots between healthy pollinators and a healthy environment, they hope to incite positive change and help pollinators overcome the challenges they face. Population growth and development have encroached on pollinator habitat; chemical contaminants harm their health; and both native and invasive pests, parasites and diseases threaten populations.
“Right now, pesticides are a really big deal. Bees are going through something that we are calling Colony Collapse Disorder because we don’t actually know what causes it,” said Heather Calabrese, Program Assistant at Arlington Echo. “There is some research that points to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. It’s interesting how it, and many other pesticides, work. It doesn’t actually kill the animal right away. It effects the nervous system, disorienting it, [the animal] stops cleaning itself, eating, feeding other animals, and then it starves to death or dies of disease.”
Although honeybees, like those kept at Arlington Echo, are not native to North America, they are not considered invasive. Instead, they are considered an important part of our natural ecosystem, and their decline is directly linked to habitat loss. Development fragments wildlife habitat and pushes native species out. “Because of development, we lose native plant populations. If there is not enough food for our pollinators because we have built on their habitat, then we won’t have the native pollinators,” Parker explained.
Over the past 60 years, managed bee populations have declined from 6 million to 2.5 million, an alarming number that has sparked many states and organizations to offer financial and tax incentives to encourage people to keep bees.
Parker, Goldberg and Calabrese are all enthusiastic about keeping bees and claim that once you start, you can’t help but become fascinated by the social complexities of the critters. “You can put as much or as little work into maintaining the hive as you would like,” said Goldberg. “The bees are clean, hardworking and good at taking care of the hive for the most part.”
The educators at Arlington Echo stress the importance of making connections between the natural world and human health. Many of the things that harm pollinators also pose a threat to humans, water and other wildlife. “There is the developmental part of… pollinator population decline, but also the pesticide use,” Parker said. “Those pesticides end up in our waterways. You know, everything is connected. You pull one string and the rest unravels. So, even though it seems like a small piece, it is part of a bigger issue.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question is: “In light of recent consumer buying trends, is there any evidence of environmental impacts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed of buying local foods? In other words, how does buying local food help the Chesapeake Bay?”
This is a great question, especially in relation to Maryland’s Buy Local Week, held from July 17-25 this year. Buy Local Week was initiated a few years ago by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission to raise awareness about the benefits of local food and community agriculture. It has since turned into a statewide initiative.
One of the major environmental benefits of incorporating local food into your diet is reducing the distance food is transported from where it is produced to where it is consumed. According to a 2001 report by the Capital Area Food Bank, fresh produce arriving at the Jessup, Maryland Terminal Market in 1997 traveled an average one-way distance of 1,686 miles from the state of production to Maryland.
The pollution associated with this transportation adds a considerable amount of nutrients to all water bodies, including the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. About one-quarter of the nitrogen pollution in the Bay comes from air pollution, so buying food produced locally is a great way to cut down on emissions.
Another way buying local food helps the Bay is by supporting and preserving local farms. When you buy local food, more of the money you spend goes directly to the farmer that grew it. Local, independent farmers can be vulnerable to development pressure, so supporting them helps them keep their farms going. Conversion of farmland to homes and shopping centers can adversely affect the long-term sustainability of the local farming industry, a significant part of the culture, heritage and economy of the Chesapeake region.
It seems that many people in Maryland already understand the importance of preserving farmland, as 61 percent of Marylanders surveyed by the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy said the issue was very important. Likewise, 78 percent of respondents said they were more likely to buy products identified as having been grown by a Maryland farmer.
So even after Maryland’s Buy Local Week is over, make an effort to shop at your nearest farmer’s market and begin incorporating local foods into your meals regularly. You can help to preserve a rich agricultural tradition, limit pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, support your local economy, and eat fresh, healthy food.
To find your local farmer’s market, check out the following sites:
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events!