The day dawns bright and clear, with a biting freeze that clamps to any exposed skin within minutes outside. If it’s this cold on their dock in Wittman, Md., Nick Hargrove and Derek Wilson know it’s going to be even harder on the water, where water and tributaries might be frozen in some parts, and there’s a bay, wide and flat, that can welcome a weather change in minutes.
It’s winter on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay — far from the white sails of recreational boating and sparkling water reflected in day-tripper sunglasses — and that means it’s oyster season for these two watermen of Wild Divers Oyster . The bay has a different tone this time of year, when it’s human against the elements, wind whipping across bows, and the two men, friends since sixth grade, don’t need many words to express their apprehension to the day ahead. That apprehension is part of the job, since Wilson must spend hours under the water, handpicking oysters from the bay’s murky bottom while Hargrove maneuvers the boat, monitors the cord that connects Wilson to it (and to air, light and warm water), and sorts oysters for the day’s haul.
They are watermen just like many in their community before them, but regulations, changing water quality and conditions, and the rise of aquaculture provide new challenges. The two men are building a decidedly modern business on the foundation of a traditional Chesapeake oyster plucked right from the bottom, and area chefs are beginning to notice.
Essentially, four types of “gear” are used to commercially harvest oysters, the first three from the relative comfort of a boat: dredging (employing a dredge to tow across the bottom), hand tonging (the oldest method where the gatherers work large tongs with rake-like attachments), patent tonging (using hydraulically powered tongs) and diving. Diving for oysters was once almost exclusively a recreational pastime, as documented by The Washington Post in 1982, but during that decade, Wilson’s father, Gregory (now deceased), was one who started doing it commercially in the bay.
“My dad and a few others before him were pioneers,” says Wilson, 31. “There were beds where the hand tongers couldn’t get their tongs into them,” he explains. “And divers could be in and out, efficient.”
Hargrove and Wilson have continued the legacy, despite the fact that they are a distinct minority. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), while 940 licensed watermen harvested 181,329 bushels with a dockside value of roughly $8.6 million in the 2017-2018 season, only 12.6 percent of those bushels were gathered through diving.
“To do very well, the stars have to align and you have to have intense attention to detail. . . . It’s hard, but I like it because we can work more bottom,” he says, meaning they can get to additional areas that tongs or dredging cannot. “And I worked at the restaurants, I knew what they were getting, what they were looking for.”
One of the chefs Wild Divers Oyster supplies is Harley Peet, executive chef of Blue Point Hospitality Group, which owns restaurants in the Easton, Md., area, including the fine dining Bas Rouge. Peet has cooked around the Eastern Shore for years, from Tilghman Island Inn to the Inn at Perry Cabin, and developed a personal and professional relationship with Hargrove and Wilson. In communities as small as this, neighbors know one another, drink beer together, fish together. But when sourcing product, Peet is all business. He says Wild Divers Oyster consistently delivers on excellent quality. The naturally thicker shell — as opposed to a farmed oyster — is an easier and cleaner shuck for his kitchen staff, and since they are hand-harvested, “there is a 99 percent yield on this product,” he says, noting Wilson’s skill in avoiding dead oysters, bycatch or empty shells.
“The beauty of this is that’s it’s one item, a showcase piece, and nothing needs to be done to make them excellent,” Peet says. “I trust Derek. We have a very close relationship that any chef would crave when sourcing product. Derek will ask, ‘What dish do you need oysters for?’ And it’s just one guy — he’ll send up a bucket just for me, look just for me.”
Peet focuses on using local oysters only in season, so this year, he’s looking to more stews and baked oysters rather than raw, since the heavy rains flooded the bay and caused lower salinity levels than the average diner desires for raw bar oysters. He’s serving oysters from Wild Divers this season as a decadent truffle-topped version of oysters Rockefeller or purchasing gallons of shucked oysters from the company for his locally famous oyster stew.
Collecting those oysters for Peet and other area chefs requires specialized gear that isn’t available in any sort of kit, so Hargrove and Wilson have built, salvaged or purchased gear from divers getting out of the business to cobble together what they need to keep Wilson alive below the water’s surface for six to eight hours at a time. The company’s original oxygen tank was a former keg of beer from Hargrove’s wedding, and although they’ve since upgraded to a more sophisticated air system, it’s evidence of the creative way the two approach their work.
The diver is the essential part of the gear (as opposed to tongs or a dredge), and the team uses a lot of hacks — from a crude language that involves pulling on the collection basket rope to coating the knees of Wilson’s wet suit with sealant to provide him some “tread on the tires” and protect his suit while he’s on his knees on the bay’s bottom. He replaces that coating two to three times a season, which runs from October through March.
It’s physically demanding for Wilson on the bottom and Hargrove as the “top man,” continually adjusting the position of an unanchored boat above a diver for hours at a time while hauling and sorting oysters and maintaining watch for any trouble below.
“We can’t compete with the dredgers except in certain spots where there are very heavy stones,” Wilson explains. “But diving is very efficient for us in certain areas. We go when others don’t go, and there is something about being the best out there. I know what to look for.” And that’s playing out in their production this season, when, weather permitting, they’re collecting the limit of 30 bushels a day allowed for a two-man boat.
It has been widely documented that the oyster population in the bay isn’t what it once was, whether you use that “once was” to refer to the colonial era, pre-1865 before the oyster industry boom, or the postmodern era of habitat loss and water quality instability because of runoff from consumer fertilizers, waste and other contaminants into the massive watershed. Management and restoration efforts of the oyster population have included multiple methods, from creating oyster habitat sanctuaries, and monitoring and passing regulations to improve water quality, to “seeding oysters” (through releasing baby oysters or “spat”) and of course, regulating harvesting.
And while efforts are starting to provide some positive traction in the numbers of oysters in the bay, regulations continue to shift. The Maryland DNR has completed a 2018 stock assessment, with numbers still behind goals for sustainability, and all the watermen are awaiting changes in limits, gear restrictions and locations permitted. There is a promising rise of farmed aquaculture on the bay, which adds to the number of oysters in it and is a sustainable choice for diners looking for a “best responsible” choice. But for wild-caught options, the diving gear type offers hope for the health of the bay as well.
A 2003 study by scientists from the University of California at Santa Barbara and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, when it comes to wild oysters, hand harvesting by divers resulted in the least amount of damage to a reef habitat: a 6 percent reduction in the reef’s height, compared to 34 percent by dredging and 23 percent by tonging. “Conservation of the essential habitat and sustainability of the subtidal oyster fishery can be enhanced by switching to diver hand-harvesting,” the report concluded.
Still, the physical demands of the gear type could impede watermen from donning a wet suit. “Diving could be a way to move forward in a less invasive way, but there’s no doubt that it’s hard work. The demographic of the industry could prevent that because most wild oystermen are older,” says Allison Colden, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland fisheries scientist. “These guys aren’t going to switch over to another gear type when they know the one they’ve been using and can still physically use it.”
For now, the men of Wild Divers Oyster are riding high on the adrenaline of pushing their bodies to hand-select oysters, but these entrepreneurs also have supporting their young families in mind, so they’re diversifying their business, buying wholesale oysters collected from other gear types, and even an account or two from oyster farmers to build their company into one that can act as a Chesapeake Bay oyster hub. The oysters are kept sorted by type and location, and priced accordingly, with the diver-collected oyster still being their star product. In the summer, they collect “peelers” or soft-shell crabs, so they are also buffeting that harvest with plans to employ a shedding tank for this year’s crab haul.
“We’d like to just keep doing what we’re doing,” says Hargrove, 32. “I like to catch the best oysters out there. I still get a thrill from it every day, working with my best friend, being out there. I like oysters, I like everything about them, and it’s nice to sometimes get a free beer in town if they use our product.”
Burt is a writer, editor and the host of the Southern Fork podcast. She lives in Charleston, S.C.
3 to 6 servings (makes 12 to 18 oysters)
MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be refrigerated a day or two in advance. It may solidify once it’s chilled, but it will soften soon after it has returned to room temperature.
6 ounces slab or thick-cut bacon, cut into small dice
1 small shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons sambuca liqueur (see headnote)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1½ cups (12 ounces) heavy cream
Handful fresh baby spinach, blanched and squeezed dry (see NOTE)
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Juice of ½ lemon, or as needed, plus optional wedges for serving
12 to 18 fresh oysters in the shell, preferably from the Chesapeake Bay
Place the bacon pieces in a heavy saucepan, then place over medium-low heat. Cook until brown and crisped, gradually increasing the temperature as needed; this will help prevent sticking. Transfer the bacon to a plate. Discard half the rendered fat in the pan.
Stir in the shallot and garlic, cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, watching closely so the shallot becomes translucent but doesn’t pick up too much color. Pour in the sambuca, which will steam and sizzle. Use a spatula to quickly dislodge any browned bits in the pan.
Add the butter and flour, then remove from the heat and whisk until well incorporated, to form a paste (roux). Pour in the heavy cream.
Place the pan over medium heat; whisk for a few minutes to form a thickened sauce. Once it is smooth, stir in the crisped bacon pieces, the blanched spinach and the cheese. Taste, and season lightly with salt, pepper and lemon juice as needed. To avoid over-seasoning, though, be sure to taste one of your unadorned fresh oysters to gauge their level of salinity.
When you’re ready to assemble, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Shuck the oysters, draining some of the liquor off each and making sure to detach the connecting muscle so the oyster will release from its shell (keep the oysters on their half shells).
Arrange the oysters on a rimmed baking sheet. Top each one with a generous amount of the sauce. Bake (upper rack) for 10 to 12 minutes, or until bubbling and golden brown in spots.
Serve warm, with lemon wedges, if desired.
NOTE: Blanch the spinach by dropping it into a pot of boiling water over high heat; cook for a minute or just until wilted and a richer shade of green, then immediately drain and rinse under cool water until cooled. Squeeze until dry.
More from Food: