November is Virginia Oyster Month! The Eastern Oyster, Crassostrea virginica, is a bivalve in the mollusc phylum. Oysters are one of the most commercially important species in the James River, and much of the east coast!

As referenced in our State of the James report, 4.1 million pounds of commercial fish and shellfish were landed from the James in 2022, having a total dockside value of $11.9 million! The James is also home to some of the largest oyster reefs in the world – 754,650 pounds of oysters were harvested in 2020, a total value of $9.4 million and more than 24% of Virginia’s total oyster harvest.

It’s important to note that oysters have faced challenges in the past. Decline in oyster populations in the 1950’s was likely due to factors like population growth and development, as well as a parasitic disease called Dermo which resulted in significant die-off in the ecosystem. Additionally, the economic dependence and lucrative fishing industry contributed to unsustainable harvesting practices and further loss of oyster populations.

Fortunately, efforts have been made to maintain oyster fisheries and restore their population. Measures like regulating harvest, establishing sanctuaries, researching diseases, and restoring habitats have been implemented. This is good news for both the ecosystem and those who enjoy oysters! According to our most recent State of the James Report, the James River public oyster grounds have seen a growth of 25% since 2018.

Oysters play a crucial role in improving water quality as they have the ability to filter large volumes of water. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day! With a fully healthy oyster population, they could potentially filter the entire volume of the James River estuary in just six days.

In addition to their ecological benefits, oysters are also enjoyable to consume. Whether you prefer wild-caught or aquaculture-raised, these salty bivalves can be a delightful treat that satisfies our appetites. They are a low-calorie food packed with a variety of important nutrients like protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. They are also an excellent source of vitamin D, copper, zinc, selenium, vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s clear that oysters offer a wealth of benefits, both in terms of nutrition and their positive impact on the environment.

Some of our favorite recipes

Oyster Stuffing

Submitted by Lucy D. –

This is the recipe my aunt uses for Oyster Stuffing, a staple at our Thanksgiving.

1/2 c. bread crumbs
1 c. crushed Ritz crackers
1/2 c. melted butter
1 pt. shucked oysters (reserve liquid and dry)
4 T. oyster liquor
2 T. cream
salt and pepper 

Mix bread and cracker crumbs and stir in melted butter. Put layer of buttered crumbs in bottom of a shallow buttered baking dish. Cover with 1/2 of the oysters and season. Add 1/2 of the oyster liquor and 1 T cream. Repeat. Cover top with remaining crumbs and bake at 450 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until edges of oysters begin to curl. Do not allow more than two layers of oysters for this dish or else the middle layer will not be cooked. Serves 4.

Oyster Stew

Submitted by Jamie B.

This is one of my go-to favorite stew recipes, subbing in whatever herbs are readily available or I already have on hand.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
 medium shallots, finely diced
1/2 medium head fennel, finely diced
1 large stalk celery, finely diced
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 dried bay leaf
1 quart whole milk
2 dozen oysters, shucked, liquor reserved (about 1 1/2 cups)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Minced parsley, chives, tarragon, and/or fennel fronds, for garnish

Melt butter over medium heat. Add shallots, fennel, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add thyme or bay leaf.

Add milk and bring to a bare simmer. Add oysters and their liquor and return to a bare simmer; adjust heat as necessary to prevent boiling. Simmer until oysters are just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Discard thyme or bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls, garnish with herbs, and serve.

In the Shell

Submitted by Ryan W.

My favorite oyster dish is straight from the shell. Raw oysters with a touch of lemon and Texas Pete’s version of Sriracha hot sauce. Or sometimes, Marie Sharp’s, which is a habanero hot sauce from Belize.

Oyster Po Boy

Submitted by Erin H.

My favorite oyster dish is a New Orleans staple, the Oyster Po Boy! Crispy fried oysters on fresh bread with a classic remoulade sauce are good anytime!

 Remoulade Sauce

1¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup mustard
1 garlic clove
1 Tablespoon pickle juice
1 Tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon hot paprika
½ teaspoon hot sauce

Place all sauce ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Chill until ready to use.

Po’ Boys

2 dozen shucked oysters
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
2 Tablespoons Creole seasoning
3 large eggs
vegetable oil, for frying
kosher salt
4 x 6-inch sub or French bread rolls, split in half horizontally
remoulade sauce
shredded iceberg lettuce and sliced red tomatoes

Coat oysters in flour mixture, shaking off excess. Dredge oysters through the egg batter. Allow excess batter to drip back into the bowl. Return oysters to flour mixture and toss to coat. Repeat the process with the remaining oysters.

Heat oil a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven to 375°F. Gently add the oysters to the hot oil, being careful to not overcrowd them. You will have to cook the oysters in batches. Cook for 2-3 minutes, flipping once, until golden brown. Remove the oysters to a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Season with salt while hot.

To assemble the po boys, spread them inside of buns with remoulade sauce, and top with lettuce, tomato and oysters. Serve immediately.

Fresh Oyster Dip

Submitted by Angie W.

Crispy crackers and baguettes are my weakness, so of course I’m going to recommend a fresh oyster dip!

8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
2 tbs mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp low carb Old Bay seasoning, optional
1 tsp hot sauce, or more to taste
¼ tsp garlic powder
8 oz can whole oysters, drained and roughly chopped
3 tbs chopped fresh parsley, divided
salt and black pepper
2 tbs crumbled cooked bacon or bacon bits

In a bowl, mix together the cream cheese (room temperature), mayonnaise, lemon juice, garlic powder, and hot sauce. Stir the oysters into the cream cheese mixture, together with two tablespoons of the chopped fresh parsley. Taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper, and more hot sauce if desired. Sprinkle with the remaining parsley and bacon.

Cover and store in the fridge until required, removing ten minutes before serving.

We hope some of the above recipes will transform your holiday get-togethers into a shell-ebration!

If you don’t have time to whip up a delicious shell dish, consider visiting one of these great restaurants in our watershed that offer seasonal oyster dishes.