Growing and Harvesting Oysters

Find out how oysters are grown and how best to harvest some yourself.

| December 2018

  • Leslie Hardy's crew grading on the beach, Ellerslie, Prince Edward Island.
    Photo by Patrick McMurray
  • Colville Bay oysters in bags, on trestles, and full of promise.
    Photo by Patrick McMurray
  • An oyster farmer at a saltwater claire in France.
    Photo by Owen Franken/CORBIS
  • Tide coming in on the Kelly beds, Galway Bay.
    Photo by Patrick McMurray
  • Buckets in hand, young children search for oysters in Port Notre Dame, Ile de Re, France.
    Photo by Nik Wheeler/CORBIS
  • Patrick McMurray's book "The Oyster Companion" focuses on everything you would want to know about one of the world's delicacies — oysters. From how they are grown to how to shuck them, this book has all the secrets on how best to enjoy the oyster.
    Cover courtesy of Firefly Books

Nature’s perfect food — and eco-friendly, too!

Over the years, people have often asked me about the nutritional content of oysters. I always think of them as a delicious food that brings you in contact with the sea, but the oyster is also one of Mother Nature’s most perfect foods. In fact, it’s so packed with nutrients, it’s no wonder most people experience a protein-induced buzz after eating a number of oysters.

  • Oyster are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in cholesterol. They’re an excellent source of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, and D, and are loaded with minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, selenium, and zinc. They’re also a good source of easily digested protein. A 100-gram serving of raw C. gigas oyster meat contains 73 calories and just 2 grams of fat; 100-gram serving of C. virginica contains 60 calories and 1.5 grams of fat — perfect for health-conscious diners who are watching their figures.
  • Oyster farmers don’t feed or add any chemicals to their crop. Instead, they keep the oysters in an area where they can grow and be fed by Mother Nature.
  • Oyster farming, or aquaculture, is a sustainable resource that helps keep the environment healthy. As oysters snack on plankton, they help keep its growth in check. An overabundance of plankton clouds the water’s surface and prevents nourishing sunlight from reaching the aquatic wildlife below. (Just think of oysters as envi­ronmental heroes!)
  • Far less energy input is required to produce an ounce of protein from an oyster than most any other protein source. Beans to beef, oyster (and cultured filter-feeding shellfish) trumps all. No feed, antibiotics, water, energy/electricity needed to grow, and little fuel is required to harvest (depending on how far from land the oyster is grown). Save the ocean (ahem, the world), eat an oyster!

At the bar, I try not to say that oysters are a healthy food, good for you as well as the environment — as that type of image ruins the oyster’s sexy, late-night aphrodisiac qualities — a real shuckin’ PR nightmare.

To Grow an Oyster

Edible oysters grow naturally near the coast or on banks farther off shore where the water temperature is right and the sea bottom firm. They do particularly well in estuaries, where seawater mixed with sweet water nourishes the growth of the types of plankton that suit them.

Our ancestors originally gathered oysters by picking them up full-grown on the shore at low tide or by lifting them from natural beds at sea. In Europe, the coarse, cheap oysters of the mid-nineteenth century were a product of that kind of fishing, but they were fished out. A natural supply of mature oysters is rare in Europe nowadays.

In countries such as England, Ireland, and France, oyster cultivation consists of two stages: obtaining young oysters, and tending them as they grow and fatten.

According to Neild’s The English, The French, and The Oyster, there are two traditional methods of obtaining young oysters: by dredging a natural bed for spat and part-grown oysters; and by collecting on a private bed any spat that formed when larvae drifted in from natural beds or from private beds nearby. Once young oysters are 1/2 inch or more in size, they are known as brood and are bought and sold for laying down to grow and fatten.

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