A sign of oyster recovery?

Published 9:12 pm Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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On several trips down the Pagan River this year, our sailing crew has been fascinated at the number of shoreline oysters that are visible.

They can only be seen in the intertidal area just below the marsh grass line, in other words, during low tide. On the lower Pagan, there is a nearly solid white line along that stretch of mud when the tide recedes.

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I love oysters, not just to eat but because of their value to the Chesapeake estuary. Their ability to filter water is amazing, and the precipitous decline in the Bay’s oyster population during the past 50 years has had a significant negative impact on the Chesapeake’s water quality.

The increase in the oyster population during the past few years gives scientists as well as oyster lovers reason to be encouraged because, simply put, the more oysters in the Bay and its tributaries, the better for the entire estuary.

I don’t recall seeing the number of shoreline oysters that we’ve been seeing along the Pagan this past year and thought that it must be a sign of the oyster fishery’s overall improvement.

I asked local oyster expert O.A. Spady about them and he said “Oh, you mean the coon oysters.”

The what?

Seems these shoreline oysters are a favorite food for foraging raccoons and thus have been known as coon oysters throughout the areas they inhabit.

I did a bit of checking and it seems that is indeed the informal name specifically of intertidal oysters. They are called such because (a) they are a favored food of raccoons and (b) they generally have an elongated, narrow shape that has been said to resemble a raccoon’s paw.

They are prolific and will quickly form a shoreline cluster, but rarely grow to what would be considered a market-size oyster.

Throughout the South, the intertidal oyster has also historically been favored for oyster roasts simply because they are easy for landsmen to harvest. Just walk along a shore at low tide and pick them up.

All this was interesting and the sight of so many oysters along the Pagan was exciting, so I called Virginia’s oyster expert, Virginia Marine Resources employee Jim Wesson.

Wesson pretty well burst my bubble about this surge in shoreline oysters.

Nothing unusual, he said. There’s just been an extra good spat strike during the past two years. (Spat — infant oysters — attach themselves to oyster shell or other hard surfaces and there they live and grow.)

The large spat strike, Wesson said, has been coupled with mild winters when little or no shoreline ice formed. Intertidal oysters now being seen along the Pagan will die off as soon as there’s a sustained cold spell, he said.

Oh, well. It still seems encouraging to me that thousands upon thousands of oysters can once again be seen along the shore of the Pagan, even if it doesn’t excite a scientist.