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Preparing oysters and clams to be eaten at The Boston Seafood Festival.  Photo Courtesy of Emily Ott.

Preparing oysters and clams to be eaten.
Photo Courtesy of Emily Ott.

Do you know where the oysters you ate at the raw bar last night were grown? Do you know how oysters are grown? Oysters naturally inhabited the eastern coast dating back to the 1700s, but due to over-harvesting, disease, and habitat loss, wild oysters have struggled. However, there are many oyster farms, especially in Massachusetts, that are providing this delicacy for restaurants and consumers all over. But with food sustainability as a growing movement, it is important that we know exactly where and how our food is produced.

Oysters can be grown using different techniques, but they all start with a similar process of growing the seed. Believe it or not, oysters start as 2 millimeter long seeds and are grown in an upweller system that force-feeds the oysters while they are contained for the first six to eight weeks. During these weeks, the oysters are sorted through a screen with the 6 millimeter oysters moving on to the next stage. Once screened for appropriate growth, cultivating techniques tend to differ.

Commercial cultivators typically grow the oysters in a system of bags and cages where they grow from late June until August and then are released into the ocean bottom. Following this, oysters are then “planted” or thrown into the muddy bottom of the ocean for the remainder of their lifetime in the water. However, not all oysters are grown commercially and there are different processes for growing them, depending on their use. Some oysters are released into the ocean bottom to grow naturally after they are screened. This technique is typical for growing wild oysters.  Additionally, oysters can be grown in an artificial maturation tank which is a highly controlled atmosphere for the oysters to grow in.

These three methods are some of the more common, but oysters can be grown on stakes, lines or with a rack and bag. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is encouraging waterfront property owners to grow oysters right off their dock to help clean the bay, so anyone can grow oysters with a little study and time.

Although laborious in farming, a good oyster may be the next fillet mignon…or at least a key protein provider in an average diet. While cows take in twelve to twenty pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, oysters have no input of food and actually help their environment by eating algae and improving dead zones. Once a farmer has invested in the equipment needed to grow oysters and acquired an area to cultivate, the investment is essentially complete. By comparison, cattle require continual feeding of grain and other nutrients along with prolonged care.

It is important to note that there are health precautions that every consumer should be aware of, just like any food. A bacteria commonly known as Vibrio can be found in oysters that have been in warmer waters for too long. The main effect is a gastrointestinal disease and, on rare occasions, can be lethal. You can read more about oysters and Vibrio on the Food and Drug Administration website.

On the whole, enjoy your oysters. Hopefully you will have a special appreciation for each oyster you gulp knowing how they are grown and where they are grown in Massachusetts.

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Spending my summer as an intern in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, I enjoy writing for the Great Outdoors blog as well as tweeting for the office's twitter accounts. While I am not in the office I can be found working out, playing lacrosse and enjoying time with family and friends. During the year, I am a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where I play lacrosse and I am hoping to major in Economics and Environmental Studies.

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