As most things in the natural world, oysters endure rather than enjoy the winter. Oysters spend the spring, summer and fall happily filtering cool, salty bay-water, extracting nutrients from plankton, and growing the meat inside their shell. As the bay cools in November oysters begin to ready themselves for the coldest three months of the year. As winter approaches, filtering and growth slows down. When the temperature of the bay drops below 45 degrees all physiology stops and the oyster fades to dormancy.
Effectively asleep from late November through Mid-March, this winter respite is a good thing for the oyster eater. Oysters spend the winter living on glycogen they produced and stored all fall. The glycogen, stored in the oyster’s liver, is often thought to provide a “sweeter” taste in the winter months. In addition to being a bit sweeter on the tongue, oysters are at their plumpest through December (having filtered and fed as much as possible in the autumn but not yet depleted of their glycogen store).
In Darwinian fashion, only strong healthy oysters are expected to make it through their first winter. Small, weak 8 month old oysters often can’t survive the winter climate. Ravaged by sub freezing temperatures and whipped by wind, it takes a hearty piece of shellfish to make it to March.
Oyster farmers do everything they can to ready oysters for the winter. They promote growth and health by; growing oyster seed as early as possible, deploying mature seed to grow-out operations as quickly as possible and spending many summer low tides washing fouling off bags as much as possible. Still, when the young seed is finally being spread on the bay bottom in late fall there is a faint sound of rolling dice.
It’s not uncommon for an oysterman to go back to his farm in early March and find small empty shells or bare spots that were once covered by juvenile oysters. He might also observe hedge rows of small oysters blown astray by northeast storms. The hedge rows can be taken care of by methodically raking the heaps of young oysters into bare areas but the empty shell is considered a total loss.
Farmers oftentimes change harvesting methods in the winter. A heavy long-toothed dredge pulled across an oyster bed inevitably leaves behind chipped shells that the oyster can easily repair in the warm months but are fatal wounds in the winter. Some farmers choose to drag heavily through the fall and do the extra work of laying away bags of full grown oysters. They design well thought out wire rack holding systems or buoyed long lines of bags which become convenient winter caches.
The longer days and warmer sun that begin in March coerce the oyster from its sleep. It will soon begin filtering water and growing. Until then oysters quietly sit on the bay bottom, waiting to be harvested and sold to raw bars and restaurants across the country.
★ Peter Ciccarelli ★