A History Of Oysters

This traditional art was—and is—an important part of many global cultures.

September 5, 2014

Gardening oysters is both an ancient form of aquaculture and a harbinger of seafood of the future. The basic technique—gather baby oysters and protect them until they reach maturity—was simultaneously discovered millennia ago by the Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Romans, and others.

During the golden age of Greek culture, Aristotle reported “oysters from banks near the island of Lesbos were transplanted to similar hitherto unpopulated ground of Chios.” Rowan Jacobsen describes one entrepreneurial Roman, Sergius Orata, who set nets of twigs around adult oysters to catch the larvae when the oysters spawned. He would then move the twigs to other locations for growth, serving the oysters to rich Romans in spa locations throughout the empire. In Japan, growers used sections of bamboo, leaves still attached. The Japanese also invented “lantern nets,” accordian-like structures that expand and contract with the tides and allow easy separation of oysters by size. The Chinese invented “ear-hanging” for oysters and scallops, which involved punching a small hole in each live mollusk shell and stringing them in a chain. The French used a dollop of cement to attach baby oysters to wooden racks.

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These techniques have been gradually refined and expanded. Today’s commercial oyster growers produce baby mollusks in large indoor hatcheries, where the water is warmed and augmented with algae to create exactly the sort of romantic environment that gets adult oysters to produce sperm and eggs. With wild fish populations struggling, farmed fish is the only segment of our seafood diet that is growing and now accounts for half of all seafood on the planet. Shellfish and seaweeds are the majority of that farmed seafood, in part because it makes such good sense to raise them. China alone is responsible for 70 percent of global fish farming, including the majority of oyster production. The most sophisticated operations raise their oysters in large metal racks that are mechanically flipped and shaken to simulate the actions of a rough sea (to help strengthen shells and encourage a more wild flavor). Others are breeding oysters that can withstand the warmer temperatures and other effects of climate change, including ocean acidification that makes it harder for baby oysters to build their calcium carbonate shells.

Photography by Lindsay Morris