“The bottom of the James River is one enormous oyster-bed,” wrote a New York Times reporter who sailed with an oystering schooner in 1880. “From its mouth for 20 miles up, it is nothing more or less than a natural oyster-bed. Go anywhere in it you may and push to the bottom a pair of oyster-tongs, bring them together, and lift them out of the water, and you will catch oysters.”

Oysters were once prevalent in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. Today, oyster populations are less than 5 percent of their historical populations. The steep decline in population is attributed to poor water quality, disease (MSX and Dermo), and over-harvesting. Poor water quality stresses oysters making them more susceptible to disease.
Fortunately, oyster restoration efforts are underway throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Virginia recently launched the largest oyster replenishment effort in its history. Oyster shells mined beneath the James River near Jamestown are being used to create habitat in areas of the river where oysters have historically grown. According to Natural Resources Secretary, Doug Domenech, “Oysters in Virginia are about a $8 million business now, and in fact last year we harvested the most oysters since 1989.”

The ecological importance of oysters contributes to its economic importance. Oysters are filter feeders which means they filter water as they feed. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day! Oyster reefs are also critical habitats for other organisms, some of which are economically important like the Blue Crab.

SLURP! Have you ever tried a flight of raw oysters? If you haven’t and you like oysters, you should. The flavor of an oyster varies depending on where it is harvested. Oysters harvested from Virginia rivers like the James and Rappahannock are less salty than oysters harvested from Chincoteague Bay, located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. On a recent visit to Richmond’s Rappahannock, an outpost of Rappahannock River Oyster Co., I compared the flavor of an oyster raised in the Rappahannock River to one raised in the Chincoteague Bay. After slurping each oyster down my gullet, their unique flavor profiles became evident. The Rappahannock had a mild almost buttery flavor compared to the Olde Salt from Chincoteague Bay, which was briny. I highly recommend the experience!

Oysters of the James” article from the May 16, 1880 New York Times

Oyster Shells on the Move” article from the July 9, 2013 Public News Service: