Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Great Article About Our Buddies on the Eastern Shore

By Lorraine Eaton
The Virginian-Pilot
© November 4, 2009
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Parting Creek as "Pardon Creek" and Bayport as "Bayside."


A few weeks back, I met a new oyster.

This oyster lived in a curiously shaped shell, cupped on the bottom, level on the top, different from the flattish oysters I'm accustomed to slurping. The meat inside looked different, too - rounded and plumpish, not quite compact, but not as spread out as other oysters.

The cupped shape would make this a perfect oyster for shooting, I thought, but only if it delivered a satisfying oyster taste.

So I slurped one down - and it was like no oyster I'd eaten. The meat had a rich flavor, and the pool of salty, milky liquor delivered a sensation of the sea.


The fishmonger said these bivalves hailed from Virginia's Eastern Shore and called them Hog Island oysters.

A few phone calls to state fisheries officials put me in touch with Pete Terry, owner of H.M. Terry Co. Terry is a third-generation waterman who raises infant oysters on a dock in Willis Wharf, about 25 miles up the Eastern Shore, then moves them to reach harvest size in Hog Island Bay.

On an early fall day, clear and warm, Terry stood at the edge of Parting Creek near his family's Willis Wharf clam house. He looked eastward past the landscape he thinks makes his oysters taste so good.

About a mile out, a low silhouette of trees separates the greenish water of Parting Creek from the bright blue sky. Beyond the trees flows the Machipongo River, which is fed by the salty expanse of Hog Island Bay. Two fingers of land - Hog Island and Cobb Island - are the only barriers between the bay and the endless Atlantic.

No one lives on this land. The craggy islands and waters on the Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore, from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to Chincoteague, are protected by a jigsaw puzzle of private organizations and government agencies and cannot be developed.

In addition, a tidal flow of four to five feet provides a "tremendous" flushing action in the deepwater creek, Terry said.

"This is the only place on the East Coast where there is no inland river impacting our water quality," he said. "Everything we have almost is fresh ocean water."


Terry's grandfather harvested wild Eastern Shore oysters, canned them and sold them under the brand name Sewansecott. But a double scourge of diseases crippled the bivalve population, along with the once-storied reputation of Virginia oysters.

Today, the Sewansecott brand is stamped on boxes of oysters that get their start on this dock in Willis Wharf in a series of 44 narrow, rectangular tanks, each 16 feet long, each filled with plastic buckets lined up lip to lip. The operation seems simple, but there's a lot of biology and technology behind it.

Terry's partner in the oyster venture is Tom Gallivan, who studied aquaculture at the University of Maine and worked for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Standing on the dock, Gallivan explained that each bu cket holds tens of thousands of baby oyst ers. In his hand, they looked like tiny chips of pine bark.

A pump forces the Parting Creek water that Terry talked about into the tanks and buckets. The oysters feed on the algae and phytoplankton, and the water, cleaner still because of the oysters' filtration, flows back into the creek.

When the oysters grow large enough, Terry and Gallivan set them into mesh baskets and submerge them onto leased bottomlands on both sides of the Eastern Shore.

Terry's oysters are seasides that grow to harvest size in Hog Island Bay. Gallivan tends his "Nassawadox Salts" on a football-sized plot of leased bottomland on Nassawadox Creek near Bayport on the west ern side. A shucking house built in 1888 still stands at the creek's edge, attesting to the long tradition of oystering in this very spot.

The main difference between Terry's "seaside" Sewansecotts and Gallivan's "bayside" Nassawadox Salts is salinity. The baysides are about 22 parts salt per thousand, while the seasides are about 32.


Later that day aboard the Oyster Queen, Gallivan's battered work boat, the partners pulled a basket out of the creek using an electric winch. The boat pitched to port side, and when the basket settled on the boat deck, it was covered in clots of seaweed and smelled like low tide.

Inside, it teemed with life. Sea squirts shot water, while tiny crabs skittered for cover and a few fish flopped out. But mostly, there were oysters, hundreds of shells sticking up this way and that, slathered in chocolate-colored mud, with the distinctive cup shape.

Gallivan explained that the shape is the result of several passes through a tumbler, where the "bill," or sharp outer edges of the oyster, is chipped off. The oysters go in the tumbler each time they are culled for size and moved into baskets with mesh walls with an increasingly wider weave. Altogether, the oysters take about two years to bring to market size.

Terry hosed down the oysters, and Gallivan picked one up and opened it with a pocketknife. It was almost as plump as a baby's cheek.

When the oysters reach market size, Terry and Gallivan hand-select them for packing. They are tumbled one last time and cleaned before going into 100-count boxes.

In Willis Wharf, you can buy a 100-count box of Sewansecotts or Nassawadox Salts for $35. On this side of the Chesapeake Bay, George's Seafood in Norfolk sells Sewansecotts for $50 a box. It's a premium price, considering that wild-caught Eastern Shore oysters are going for $40 a box. Welton's Seafood Markets in Norfolk's Ghent and at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront sell them for $8.99 a dozen.

Meanwhile, Terry and Gallivan are marketing the oysters in New York and around Raleigh, N.C. But they're catching on locally.

"I have a lot of people ordering them," said Rick Geers, co-owner of George's Seafood. "They're the most consistent oyster I've seen in all my years in the business. There's no thing better."

Lorraine Eaton, (757) 446-2697, lorraine.eaton@pilotonline.com

Check out the video that went along with the story.