Oyster Harvest at Deep Creek Inlet, Newport News, Virginia
My enjoyment of local oysters and my appreciation of the waterman’s way of life are tempered by the severe environmental costs of oystering on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. In pre-colonial times the Bay’s oyster population was so vast that these filter feeders were able to recirculate and purify the Chesapeake’s entire volume of water in about three days. So few oysters remain that this cycling now takes almost a full year. Over-harvesting, pollution, and disease have caused critical decline of oyster numbers throughout the estuary.
The good news is that careful management and restoration programs seem to be reversing the losses. While the oyster population is still a small fraction of its historic highs, oyster numbers are rebounding in the Chesapeake Bay region.
These photos show Chesapeake deadrise workboats bringing in the morning haul of oysters from the James River, at Deep Creek in Newport News, Virginia.
Most of the oysters in the region are still taken using oyster tongs - 16 foot (5 m) scissor-like contraptions with raking claws used to bring the oysters up from the shallows of the estuary. It is grueling work, requiring great upper-body strength and endurance. Click here for a video clip of waterman wannabe, Anderson Cooper, attempting to land oysters with tongs. Do not count on Anderson Cooper if you are planning to feed a crowd at your next oyster roast.
Some watermen harvest oysters using a winch and dredge (the trapezoidal cage seen on the wooden platform in the bottom right photo) instead of oyster tongs. To reduce indiscriminate damage to oyster beds the use of dredges is highly regulated, and requires special permits.
Virginia regulations also prohibit commercial oystering on Saturdays and Sundays. This restriction is partly a holdover from archaic blue laws, and partly a concession to the work schedules of law and environmental health officials. When these photos were taken regulators from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Health Department Division of Shellfish Sanitation were on hand to observe and inspect the haul. I think it’s nice that Virginia oysters also get the weekend off.
These photos and text were originally posted in October, 2010, and are adapted and reposted today for #americanguideweek.