A fast-growing cadre of Chesapeake Bay oyster farmers are banking on it.
The Chesapeake has long been known for its oysters, though primarily for its dwindling wild population. But watermen now are being encouraged to farm oysters along its banks instead of harvesting them wild. And producers in Maryland already are jockeying for bragging rights about whose section of some 3,000 acres being leased produces the tastiest oysters.
Hollywood Oyster, Snow Hill and Parrot Island are among the names tempting buyers, with growers touting the distinct flavours imparted on their shellfish by the waters of their particular river, creek or bight. Choptank Sweet for example, grown in that river's slightly brackish waters, claim a creamy mildness. York River oysters, grown closer to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, are salty-sweet.
Maryland officials overseeing the leasing of the waterways are eager to follow the example set in Virginia, which last year sold more than 23 million farmed oysters, up from fewer than 1 million in 2005.
Travis Croxton, 37, began oyster farming a decade ago on Virginia's Rappahannock River along with his cousin on bay acreage first leased by their grandfather. Since then, they have opened an oyster-tasting restaurant named — appropriately enough — Merroir.
"Every bend of the tributaries in the bay can yield a different flavour, a different characteristic," Croxton said, adding that their sweet and buttery Rappahannocks are grown further upriver than most other farmed oysters and "that kind of gives them a mineral taste."
"And then we contrast it with our Olde Salts from the Chincoteague, which are super salty right off the ocean, and there's a huge middle ground in between those two spectrums," Croxton said.
Virginia has been leasing bay bottom to watermen for decades, but the farming methods recently have become more sophisticated. And that has changed both the nature and perception of the industry.
Previously, hatchery grown oysters were planted on the bottom of the bay, then dredged up much as wild oysters would be. It was a high-volume, low-margin business known for producing oysters destined mainly for cans, not to be served on the half-shell in restaurants.
Today, the process is far more controlled. Oysters are grown individually in trays or cages placed in the water, giving producers greater control over how the oysters' shells form. Some producers keep their trays in one place; others move them around, even bringing them closer to the ocean to impart a saltier taste. Others even move them to tanks as they mature so specific salts can be added to get particular flavour profiles.
When he began growing oysters, Croxton said most higher-end restaurants served farm-grown oysters from New England and the Northwest.
"We had to beat down the doors just to get them to try the product and forget about what they thought the bay oyster was because at the time it was a wild, muddy mess," Croxton said.
Thomas J. Murray, a seafood economist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said the state now easily has 50 aquaculture operations with more entering the market yearly. And — thanks to the newer farming techniques — most of them are producing for the higher-priced half-shell market.
"There's a lot of branding going on," Murray said.
In Maryland, Tal Petty is one of the new entrants to aquaculture, raising about 2 million oysters at his Hollywood Oyster Co. Petty tumbles the oysters as they grow to chip the edges, a process he says makes their cups deeper and the oysters plumper. He also pumps water over smaller oysters in containers on his dock to speed their growth before separating them into larger and larger trays on the bottom of the river.
For consumers, the increasing options are a guilt-free way to enjoy oysters.
Tom Pickerell, senior science manager at Seafood Watch, a program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium that provides recommendations on seafood consumption, said farmed oysters are a 'best choice' because they generally improve coastal water conditions.
Anamarija Frankic, director of the Green Harbor Project and professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said that oysters and mussels have been farmed since ancient Greek times. Shellfish aquaculture contributes the environment if done sustainably, but not as much as their wild shellfish counterparts. That's because wild oysters form complex reefs that provide habitat for other species, increasing biodiversity and protecting coastal areas.
Murray said growers are continually entering the market and Petty and Croxton think there's room for more.
"That's the beauty of oysters," Petty said. "It's somewhat akin to wine because you have the taste of the water, and so it is a boutique market."