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.