It’s August. Have an oyster.

July 31, 2012

When Andy and Jill Buck decided to get into the oyster business — part of their plan to ease into retirement with jobs close to the water — the couple could have followed the methods that date back generations in Calvert County, back before overfishing, pollution and disease ruined almost everything. The Bucks could have just harvested oysters from public bars or from the bottom of their own leased waters on the Patuxent River.

That would have been the safe, economical play.

But the Bucks decided to go against the conservative mindset in the area and invest some $100,000 to break into cage aquaculture, shepherding the bivalves from tiny seed oysters to three-inch, market-ready mollusks. The practice is labor-intensive — with the constant raising and lowering of cages, the tumbling and sorting of oysters — but the Bucks think they hold the trump card that will ultimately reward their high-dollar underwater gamble.

It’s the triploid oyster, a virtually sterile creature that grows faster and is more disease-resistant than wild or domesticated diploid oysters and, just as important, can be eaten in summer without the loss of taste and texture that afflicts bivalves tied to spawning cycles. The triploid might just put to rest the adage that oysters should be consumed only in months with an “R” in their name. Without question, the triploid increasingly is the go-to oyster of Chesapeake watermen.

“This is, to me, just another way of doing oysters,” says Andy Buck, the fourth-generation waterman behind Patuxent Seafood, based in Calvert County. “You have to move with the times.”

You also don’t have to waste so much time, adds Jill Buck. Wild diploid oysters, the kind found around Calvert County, take three years to mature; in that same amount of time, the Bucks expect to sell two or three harvests of their triploids on the potentially lucrative half-shell market (vs. the oyster shucking market, which typically gobbles up most of those diploids raised on old shell stock on the bottom of rivers and bays).

So what is this magic triploid? It’s not, as you might suspect, a monstrous genetically modified organism in the way we’ve come to think of one; the triploid, in other words, isn’t altered by inserting genes from another source or another species. The oyster, with three sets of chromosomes, is bred to be sterile.

“It’s a very common manipulation,” says Stan Allen, director of the Aquaculture Genetics & Breeding Technology Center at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Allen casually mentions that we regularly eat triploids without realizing it: Bananas, blueberries and seedless watermelons all have three sets of chromosomes, the result of agricultural breeding.

Allen is particularly well-versed in the world of triploid oysters. In 1979, he was a graduate student at the University of Maine, where he was instrumental in developing them as part of a team at the Darling Marine Center. The procedure for breeding triploids was cumbersome back then, Allen says, because each batch of oyster eggs had to be manipulated with a toxic chemical in order to add the extra set of chromosomes. The response of Maine watermen to this innovation was, essentially, a gigantic yawn. They were not yet ready for virtually sterile Crassostrea virginica oysters.

But the West Coast was. When Allen moved to Washington state in the early 1980s for his doctoral studies, he and a research partner developed a triploid version of the Crassostrea gigas oyster, which the Pacific seafood industry warmly embraced. The big leap forward, though, would come in the mid-1990s, when Allen was working at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory at Rutgers University. He teamed with a Chinese scientist to develop a tetraploid oyster, with four sets of chromosomes, which could then mate with a diploid to naturally produce a triploid without the toxic chemical. The breakthrough changed everything.

“That development,” says Allen, “enabled much broader use of the triploids, so they started to take off in different parts of the world.”

Except in the Chesapeake Bay, which was slow to adopt the triploid oyster. Part of the problem was basic agricultural economics and logistics. Unlike the West Coast, where a triploid industry was beginning to flourish, the East Coast had no hatcheries dedicated to developing and selling triploid larvae and seed; Crassostrea virginica triploids were not commercially available. What’s more, the Chesapeake Bay had yet to show signs of embracing oyster aquaculture, an important step toward building a triploid industry.

Virginia watermen were among the first to start testing the waters with triploids. In the early 2000s, cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton revived a moribund family business, Rappahannock River Oysters , with the idea of farming both triploids and diploids, the latter of which would help replenish a decimated Chesapeake Bay with wild larvae. The Croxtons started buying triploid strains from Allen, hoping the oysters would open up the summer half-shell market to Chesapeake bivalves, long neglected in warmer months for those from colder, northern waters or Pacific triploids.

“When we started out, it was actually really, really hard to get anything sold,” says Travis Croxton. The watermen had to become as much educators as farmers. They met with any chef or restaurateur who would open their doors to them, and perhaps surprisingly, the oystermen met with quick success. Eric Ripert, the four-star chef behind New York’s Le Bernardin, was an early adopter. Local chefs soon followed, including Jeff Black, the man behind BlackSalt and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, who quickly saw the value of the triploid.

“That’s why we like them: There’s no spawning season,” says Black. “So you don’t have as much fluctuation in flavor profile.”

Black has become both a major buyer and promoter of triploid oysters at his seafood-heavy restaurants. Not only is he working with the Croxtons on his own boutique triploid, but last month, his Black Jack bar hosted a “Hot Summer, Cold Oysters” tasting that featured bivalves from Rappahannock and Broadwater Oyster. The idea, according to promotional material, was to show the gathered slurpers that it’s possible to “produce high quality oysters in the middle of summer.” The event, in other words, wanted to break the “R months” spell.

Developing that consumer market is paramount, since more and more Chesapeake watermen are adopting triploids on their aquaculture farms. The 2010 Virginia Shellfish Aquaculture Situation and Outlook Report notes that in “2009 and 2010 the percent [of] triploids used in Virginia farms was 80 percent and 91 percent respectively.” The state of Virginia has issued more than 300 oyster aquaculture licenses to date, translating into millions of triploids harvested. The state thinks that prior to 2009, most privately raised oysters were wild caught, since commercial hatcheries did not yet have the capacity to produce triploid seed and larvae.

“Restaurants that didn’t used to sell oysters in the summertime . . . now they can keep a good quantity of fat and good oysters on the menus year-round,” says Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board, which promotes and markets Virginia seafood. “This is a big plus for those selling half-shell oysters.”

Maryland, in contrast, is just starting to embrace triploid farming, notes Karl R. Roscher, the aquaculture coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Of the 380 shellfish aquaculture leases issued by the state, Roscher says, only 25 “are water column leases where growers place seed oysters in floats or cages for grow-out.” And of those 25, about half of the leaseholders have started to use triploids, he says.

That number is likely to increase, says Allen, and not just because the state of Maryland has been encouraging and supporting more aquaculture. Eventually, Allen says, Chesapeake Bay watermen will realize that the triploid is tailor-made to grow in their waters. The Chesapeake offers an abundance of food, which the high-metabolism triploid likes, and because the bivalve doesn’t reproduce, it can use the energy typically spent on spawning to resist diseases that can attack local oysters.

“It’s like Triploid Central” in the Chesapeake, Allen says.

The promise of more triploids and more summer oysters from the bay does come with a potential downside, says A.J. Erskine, aquaculture manager for Cowart Seafood and Bevans Oyster. The competition eventually will drive down the prices on the half-shell market, he predicts.

“I think eventually we’ll see some aspect of the market that suffers,” Erskine says. “As you get more product on the market, it’s going to be more competitive.”

That might not be the message that Andy and Jill Buck want to hear right now. After all, they’re just gearing up for their first harvest of Patuxent Pride oysters. They’re excited, and perhaps a little nervous, about how the half-shell market will react to their low-salinity oysters, which are at once grassy and creamy. They have a lot of money and sweat equity tied up in the business, and they’re ready for a return on their investment. The phone calls are already coming in, from restaurants and wholesalers alike. Soon enough, the market will tell them whether the couple can rely on the Patuxent Seafood as their retirement ticket.

Jill Buck, for one, is preparing for a future full of oysters. Last year, the 46-year-old, as she says, “lost my raw-oyster virginity.” In November, she slurped down her first oyster on the half shell. With that fear conquered, she’s ready to ease the concerns of future customers: She wants them to know that it’s okay to suck down raw oysters in summer now.

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Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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