Young and Hungry

Is An All-You-Can-Eat Oyster Fest Really The Best Way To Promote Sustainability?

An extravagant festival where some 4,000 oysters will be fried, mashed into a stuffing, grilled, presented on the half shell, and served stewed, too, might not sound like the best way to help sustain the endangered mollusks.

But there's some logic to the smorgasbord strategy of "Oysterstock," the $75-per-person charity event taking place Sunday at Poste Moderne Brasserie.

"Ironically, eating oysters can save them," says Dr. Heather Epkins, director of marketing and communications at the non-profit Oyster Recovery Partnership, the event's chief beneficiary.

Shells from the day's feast will be collected and replanted to help restore the natural oyster population that filters the Chesapeake Bay. "Each shell collected through our Shell Recycling Alliance program can plant 10 new oysters," says Epkins. "So for every oyster someone eats, there's a potential for 20 new oysters to be planted into our bay."

In other words, those 4,000 oysters that have been ordered for the event could potentially foster the homes of upwards of 80,000 new ones.

Here's how the shell recycling program works: the non-profit retrieves used oyster shells from local restaurants like Poste. It then delivers them to be dried, aged and reseeded with baby oysters to the Horn Point Lab Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge, Md. Later, the shells are replanted back into the Chesapeake Bay. Since the organization was founded in 1994, the Oyster Recovery Partnership estimates it has planted more than 3 billion new oysters on 1,500 acres of reef.

Poste has worked with the Oyster Recovery Partnership since chef Dennis Marron joined the restaurant last fall. Marron says that the oyster farms that Poste uses, like Rappahannock River Oysters and War Shore Oyster Company, actually work to increase the oyster population. It's only when people seek out wild oysters through dredging that oyster consumption hurts the natural population. "They rip up the entire bed and that completely wipes out the Bay's filter," he says.

Oysters qualify not only as a sustainable species, but also a restorative species. They filter the water and create a habitat that supports striped bass and blue crabs. The oysters' current threats are not so much overfishing, but oyster-specific diseases like MSX and Dermo, as well as poor water quality. In 2011, Tropical Storm Lee also caused conditions that required the Conowingo Dam to release enough fresh water into the Bay to negatively affect the oyster population north of the Bay Bridge. "Another small chink in the thin armor of the oyster population," says Epkins.

About half of the oysters at Sunday's Oysterstock come from War Shore Oyster Company, which uses a "bag and cage" aquaculture method. How it works: the farmers lease a section of the bay's floor from the state of Virginia, string a rope between two anchors, and drop mesh cages with oyster seed to the bay floor. The oyster populations grow "like rows of corn in a field," says Brad Blymier, the company's co-founder. The oyster farmers wait until the bivalves reach market size. Meanwhile, these new oysters are already at work filtering the bay, an estimated 50 gallons a day for an adult oyster.

"The more oysters we eat, the more oysters that get seeded into the bay. It's a circle," says Blymier. "We plant more as a result of consuming them, so it balances out."

At Oysterstock on Sunday, some participants will be competing in a "speed eating oyster contest" to see who can consume 42 oysters the fastest. By my count, the winner will be doing 840 oysters worth of good.

Image by Shutterstock

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