Commentary: Delaware-grown oysters whet appetites at holiday feasts

By Ed Hale

Fried oysters. Oyster stew. Oyster stuffing. Communities around the United States have made culinary traditions out of serving oysters during the holidays, whether tied to Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s.

Ed Hale

Explanations of the origins of the tradition vary — some say that Catholic immigrants observing restrictions against eating meat made seafood popular around the holidays or that it was because inland areas in the 19th century could only get oysters shipped cold enough starting in December. But what is certain is that the tradition has gained and kept popularity because oysters are plentiful along the coast, delicious in the fall and winter and healthy sources of protein and minerals.

To meet the appetites of seafood lovers in Delaware, oysters have been both caught wild and farmed, and a growing industry farming oysters in the Inland Bays is creating a renewed tradition of incorporating local shellfish in our holiday meals.

Commercial oyster fishing dates back to the 19th century and helped form an important economic and social component to the fabric of the state of Delaware. From the 1890s to the 1930s, landings of market oysters varied between 1.5 million to 2.4 million bushels per year in the Delaware Bay, but those numbers started to decline in the middle of the 20th century.

Today, wild harvest commercial quotas (thousands of bushels) represent small fractions of historical catches (millions of bushels), but that decline presents a unique opportunity to use innovative, applied technology, such as starting oysters’ growth in controlled tanks on land before growing them to market size in Delaware’s waterways. These techniques — many of which are practiced, refined and taught by the Delaware Sea Grant College Program to commercial seafood producers in the state — enhance economic opportunities, while improving sustainability in coastal communities in Delaware.

Oysters are uniquely beneficial. They not only provide healthy food and jobs along the coast, but they also improve water quality because they are filter feeders, straining excess nutrients and algae out of the salty rivers and bays where they are grown.

Many commercial fishers have transitioned to aquaculture practices to help increase their production of seafood. Aquaculture is defined as the farming of aquatic organisms and can include baitfish, crustaceans, food fish, mollusks, ornamental fish, sportfish, game fish and other products.

Delaware Inland Bay oysters (University of Delaware photo)

Along the Atlantic coast, the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is one of the most popular species farmed. They can be grown either in cages for individual oysters like those you would find at a restaurant’s raw bar, or they can be grown on the bottom, creating large concentrations — or reefs — of harvestable oysters. On a national scale, U.S. aquaculture production was worth $1.4 billion in 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with 41% of that value being generated from the Atlantic coast states and oysters representing the most profitable species at $173 million for 35 million pounds landed (NOAA, 2018).

Within Delaware’s Inland Bays, we have an active aquaculture industry that began culturing oysters in 2017. Shellfish farmers grow oysters in the surface waters of Rehoboth and Indian River bays using cages. There are seven businesses presently engaged in this sustainable farming enterprise and more than 50 acres leased for shellfish aquaculture in the Inland Bays. Beyond the incentives to reinstate leasing bottom ground to diversify coastal economies and make them more resilient, a number of studies provide evidence of the net environmental benefits that oyster reefs and shellfish farming generate to support healthy coastal ecosystems. The act of oyster aquaculture, whether growing on the bottom or in cages at the surface, has been found to increase available habitat and to enhance the abundance, species diversity and richness of juvenile fishes and crustaceans, depending on the specific farming method.

A list of Delaware oysters suppliers, along with a recipe or two, can be found at deseagrant.org/seafood.

Ed Hale, Ph.D., supports oyster growers and commercial fishers through applied research and extension efforts as the aquaculture and fisheries specialist for Delaware Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Service. He also is an assistant professor in the School of Marine Science & Policy at the University of Delaware.