Baja Part I

About a year ago I took a trip to southern Baja to surf and begin my investigation into the Baja oyster industry. I have been captivated by the region since first discovering the story of two guys named Mark and The Jolly Oyster. While most of the oyster culture is located in Bays in the middle of Baja, there is some interesting oyster-related history and industry in Baja California Sur as well.

First evidence of oysters came on the beaches around Todos Santos, about 75 km north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast. While unable to find any live samples, shells were plentiful, ranging in size from about 3’’-6’’. With little local information available, I headed to La Paz, the economic hub of the region, for more information.

I was told these wild oysters were probably Pteria sterna, locally referred to as ostiones de piedra. Traditionally harvested and cultured for pearls, they belong to a different order of bivalve, Pterioida, than the “true” oysters usually available in the U.S. These oysters are generally much larger and do not lend themselves very well to any restaurant applications. They are also highly seasonal. During my recent visit to a large seafood purveyor in La Paz they offered only cultured Pacific oysters on the half shell or cooked. I was told they were from San Carlos in Magdalena Bay.

Gigas in La Paz, B.C.S.

Gigas in La Paz, B.C.S.

I had one, but was a little put off by the preparation. The oysters looked beautiful before they were shucked, heavy and cold. The oysters were shucked with a small machete-style knife. The shucker held the oyster by the hinge, and smacked the thin bill with the back of the knife. This produced an opening into which he inserted the knife and detached the top shell. He then cut the muscle on the bottom shell freeing the meat. This violent approach along with the unwieldiness of the knife produced a scrambled mess of oyster and shell. This was remedied by a wash under the tap, the shucked handling and cleaning the oyster meat before placing it once again in the cupped shell. Given that the liquor is the most cherished part of the experience, I was a little disappointed by the dull, chemical notes of heavily chlorinated tap water.

Shucked, scrambled, and rinsed. Magdalena Bay gigs in La Paz, B.C.S.

Shucked, scrambled, and rinsed. Magdalena Bay gigs in La Paz, B.C.S.

Pearls were a major draw since the beginning of European contact when Cortes arrived on the peninsula in 1535. Some credit the native pearl oysters were the initial draw for Europeans to relocating to southern Baja. While the wild stocks have long since been decimated by overharvesting and disease, a robust aquaculture industry in La Paz and the surrounding bays has developed to satisfy a global demand for black pearls.

For related aquaculture interest, La Paz is also home to several tuna ranching operations. These consist of large (300-400m across) submarine geodesic domes used to contain tuna of various sizes after they have been removed from the wild. According to a 2005 report from Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, “Waters in the Bay of La Paz are considered the best in the world for tuna ranching.” Much of this investment has come from Donshui, a Japanese subsidiary of Mitsubishi. Thus, nearly all of the tuna goes straight to Japan.  Quite controversial given the environmental toll of containing tuna and the destination of the product. Yet another unfortunate example of the polarizing nature the globalized seafood industry, which takes advantage of resources in developed countries to satisfy insatiable demand in wealthy countries..

Another popular item in La Paz were large clams, later discovered to be almejas chocolatas or chocolate clams, so named for their uniform brown color. They are completely diver harvested in coastal lagoons on boths sides of Baja and further down the Pacific coast. They are pretty versatile given their large size and I saw them served raw, stuffed, roasted, or grilled.

Finally, I didn’t get to see any, but I was talking with a chef from San Diego who told me about rumors of geoduck in or around Magdalena Bay in the middle of Baja’s Pacific coast. Whether anyone is currently culturing them was unclear. Subject for further investigation. Mexico Part II coming soon to feature Ensenada and some of the large growing bays to the south.

The Case for Bivalve Aquaculture: Trends

There are several trends that indicate why now is the time for a movement towards regenerative seafood. I believe farmed bivalves address them all  positively and can be what connects the dots to create a vibrant, local food system. The goal of Hustleshuck is to make these connections and create a unified movement around regenerative seafood with the intention of improving the state of our marine environment, human health, and, the relationship between the two.

1.          Connection between food choices and environmental consequences People are becoming more concerned about the environmental impacts of their food choices. Although a disconnect still exists, especially with animal protein, people are taking more care to know the origins and production methods of their food. Importantly, people are also increasingly willing to pay for this quality and peace of mind. Relative to other forms of protein, bivalves require no inputs in the form of feed, water, and antibiotics. Farmed bivalves are also ecosystem benefactors, which impart valuable services to fragile coastal environments. They are a rare example of a reliable protein source that imparts no damage on the environment.

2.         Decentralization of meat on the American plate Promoted by food icons like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman is the idea that we are eating too much animal protein. They advocate eating less of higher quality meat. Bivalves fit nicely into this model because they are small and efficient sources of protein with tremendous health benefits for humans.

3.          Value of local food As evidenced by the proliferation of farmer’s markets nation wide, people are beginning to appreciate the value of locally produced food. The connection between grower and consumer is an increasingly important part of the food industry. This is especially so in seafood as revelations about the provenance of much of the seafood distributed in the United States become public. From mangrove destruction to slave labor, eating imported seafood becomes difficult to justify when you look deeper into where it's from, how it is produced, processed and distributed, and the associated environmental and social implications. Bivalves offer a domestic alternative and are an attractive candidate for a modern seafood system. More than any other product, oysters are tied to a place, which gives them their characteristic flavor and character. Oysters are marketed with this sense of place in order to create a story and sense of distinction around the products. Connecting people with the stories, processes, and people that behind their food is natural with bivalves, creating a positive feedback loop of supply and demand.

4.         Lack of transparency in seafood The seafood industry is defined by misunderstand and confusion brought about by an appalling lack of transparency. It is very difficult to get an idea of the global food chains that bring the majority of our seafood from the water to the plate. There are countless books, articles, and news features that highlight the issues with modern seafood. Suffice it to say that domestic farmed bivalves cut through it all. U.S. regulations ensure that they are entirely traceable from harvest to consumption, and due to their highly perishable nature, it is imperative that they get from the water to the consumer as soon as possible. These tight regulations and short supply chains mean that there is less opportunity for misbehavior and deception.

5.         Decline of wild fish stocks The current state of our marine environment is a sad reality that many of use are not aware of. Global fish stocks in particular have taken massive hits thanks to the insatiable human appetite for seafood. Bivalves are a promising alternative that can deliver a similar seafood experience, without the promise of environmental destruction. Regenerative seafood is a vital alternative that needs to be better understood, promoted, and recognized.

6.         Misunderstanding of aquaculture Farmed seafood has a dismal reputation as dirty, destructive, and industrial. While this is warranted in some cases, the negative image does not apply to all kinds of aquaculture. Raising oysters and producing salmon are entirely different processes and it is imperative that create distinctions are made. Bivalves do not have the same kind of industry organization, strength, and support as finfish aquaculture. There is a need for a reliable public source of information so consumers can make informed decisions about food.

Bill Shucking in Shelton, WA

On a recent trip to Washington for the West Coast Oyster Shucking Championships I was introduced to a new technique for shucking oysters. I was part of the four-man delegation from Hog Island Oyster Co. up there to compete as well as to visit some of the growers who supply product to Hog Island’s wholesale department. Although this wasn’t my first foray into the world of competitive oyster shucking, it was my first such engagement on the West Coast as well as my intial exposure to hardcore bill shucking.

The orientation of an oyster is defined by the hinge and the bill. Every oyster is different so it’s hard to generalize, but the hinge is the point (bottom), where the two valves (or shells) are joined. Opposite the hinge is the bill, which is more rounded and consists of newer, and thus thinner, shell. 

The hinge is at the bottom, the bill is opposite.

The hinge is at the bottom, the bill is opposite.

Like many, I was first introduced to the hinge method of oyster shucking. It seems logical enough, putting the knife in the little groove created by the joining of the two valves in order to create enough separation to slide the knife along the top shell and cut the abductor muscle. For shucking small oysters to be served on the half shell, this is generally the way to go. As I got more interested and practiced in the world of oyster shucking I started hearing about another method that didn’t bother with the hinge at all and was geared instead towards the other end of the oyster. 

This method was supposed to be popular in France and Ireland, where, traditionally, the oysters being shucked were the European Flats, Ostrea edulis. Nowadays even those traditional oyster grounds are dominated by the ubiquity of the Japanese or Pacific Oyster, Crassostrea gigas, although the technique is still very much associated with European shucking. I had also heard it employed by shuckers in the Chesapeake and Lowcountry areas of the Mid-Atlantic region, however had never seen it with my own eyes. Until I met “Chopper” at my first oyster shucking competition in Milford, CT in 2014.

After seeing how fast he was, I’ve played with the technique here and there but never really committed to bill shucking. It seems that in the world of oysters, you’re either one or the other. For my purposes of serving small oysters on the half shell, hinging is the way to go. Heading up to Washington earlier this month, however, I knew I’d once again be confronted with some bad ass billers.

Sure enough, almost all of the 30 or so contestants in Shelton worked in the canneries around Washington, and were masters of the billing technique. Shucking oysters for the half shell in a restaurant and shucking oysters for jars in a cannery are two completely different approaches to oysters. The oysters vary greatly in size and composition, the demands (cleanliness, presentation, speed, volume) are different, and thus the techniques differ tremendously.

The shucking station at Hama Hama Oyster Company in Lilliwaup, WA.

The shucking station at Hama Hama Oyster Company in Lilliwaup, WA.

The most important factor in determining which shucking technique is best suited to a given task is the oyster itself. Cannery oysters are generally much larger (and often come in clusters as opposed to singles) than those served raw on the half shell because they are destined to be cooked. Oysters are composed of a lot of water, so you want something big enough that will still have some body after cooking. Though speed is also important in a restaurant, cannery workers generally get paid according to how many two gallon containers they can fill up during a shift, so speed is of utmost importance. Since the oysters are all washed and strained before packaging, shell fragments are not an issue as they would be in a restaurant.

This is an important consideration since the issue of leaving bits of shell on the oyster would probably be the biggest drawback of billing. However, in the competition, you are only penalized for pieces of shell larger than a pencil eraser. Given the invasive nature of slamming the knife right through the top shell, most of the shell fragments are much smaller. So, even if you couldn’t serve it in a restaurant, at this particular competition you were not actually penalized.

Although there was also a speed shucking competition at this festival, the half shell competition also heavily favored the cannery bill shuckers given the large size of the oyster and the system of penalization. Incidentally, the same guy won the speed, half shell, and best presentation contests.

Miriel Silva's winning plate.

Miriel Silva's winning plate.

After I competed, I asked one of my opponents to show me how to properly bill shuck. He happened to be a member of the Leon family, whose members regularly dominate this competition. To my surprise, there was no specially modified knife involved. They used the standard 4” Boston pattern that is popular among hinge shuckers across the country. The first step is to line up the knife close to the edge of the bill, pointed down into the oyster, and slam the oyster onto the table. This helps the knife penetrate without having to force it in yourself. Ideally the knife goes through the top shell and holds on the bottom shell, at which point you run the knife laterally to cut the abductor muscle on the bottom first. I had never seen that before. (Even Chopper cut the top first.) with the oyster detached from the bottom, you pry the top shell and oyster itself up, slide the knife along the top shell, releasing the oyster back into the cupped bottom shell. Voila! The first time I did it correctly I was pretty blown away. Compared to hinge shucking, there are much fewer movements and the knife travels a much shorter distance. That said, it is very oyster-specific, as I would soon realize trying to shuck our oysters this way back in San Francisco. 

Native Oyster Reef Monitoring at Point Pinole

The Watershed Project is an NGO based in Richmond, CA that inspires Bay Area communities to understand, appreciate and protect our local watersheds.

My first engagement with the organization was at Bubbles and Bivalves, their annual fundraiser at the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39 in San Francisco. Much of their programming and activities align with what Hustleshuck is trying to do as far as using oysters to get people more connected to (improving) the marine environment. Their flagship project is a set of artificial oyster reefs located on the tide flats at Point Pinole on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

Several times a year a group of volunteers go out to monitor the reef in order to get a sense of the state of the native oyster population. Olympia oysters are the only species of oyster native to the West coast. There wasn’t much of a commercial industry for them in the San Francisco Bay as there was further north in Oregon or Washington, however they still played a crucial role in the estuarine ecosystem. Across the globe, oysters are recognized as a keystone species in coastal environments thanks to their habitat forming and water filtering capacities.

These ecosystem services were lost when sedimentation and declining water quality created an inhabitable environment for oysters in the San Francisco Bay. Like similar projects in New York Harbor and Chesapeake Bay, The Watershed Project is trying to reestablish native oysters in San Francisco Bay in the hopes of improving the health of the environment, regaining some of the biodiversity that was lost, and connecting local inhabitants to the history and promise of the Bay as a natural and cultural resource.

It was an early to start to get over to Point Pinole by 7am. We had to take advantage of the low morning tide in order to have enough time to collect our data before the reefs once again became submerged in bay water. We paired up in teams of two and set about analyzing the number and size of oysters on the reef balls as well as determining what else was growing on them and in the area.

Our surveying method consisted of randomly selecting a 6''x6'' area on the north side of randomly selected reef balls. With about 30 individual areas observed we could get a good overall sense of the health of population at this site. I was blown away by the number of oysters we found, as well as the amount of algae and other invertebrates living on and around the reef balls. It definitely seemed to be a high energy environment, remarkably similar to oyster farming sites in the concentration and diversity of organisms.

All-in-all it was a successful outing. I’d never seen so many Olys (as Olypmia oysters are commonly known) in the wild. The reefs were also clearly creating habitat for other animals like grass shrimp, which are a key prey species for striped bass, shad, and other fish.

I’ll be curious to see how things will have changed on the next outing later in Fall.  Stay tuned!

Nicaragua

I was not expecting much in the way of oysters from a surf trip to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua last winter. I was unable to find anything related during some preliminary research on the subject. Except for the fact that there was a town just south of San Juan del Sur, our destination,  called Ostional. I could not confirm exactly what that translates to in English but I knew ostion means oyster. That was enough to make a short day trip down close to the Costa Rican border to see if there was some hidden oyster paradise in the coastal jungles of Nicaragua.

Driving south of San Juan del Sur we passed a couple of small towns and tourist outposts, bumping along a red dirt road, heads out the window looking and listening for monkeys. We reached Ostional without really knowing it, doubling back and taking the only road west, presumably to the water. The road came to an end at a seemingly forgotten stretch of land, which was home to a few hammocks on shore and a small fleet of fishing boats just of the rocky beach.

There was an empty bar a little ways down the beach, outside of which a man was mending a tired fishing net. It seemed like anywhere without a surf break around here was out of luck as far as luring any tourist traffic. Especially unsurprising here considering the state of the only road in and out. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to uncover any secret oyster lore in Ostional, and a cursory exploration of the rocks did not yield any discoveries.

That changed, however, on our way back to San Juan del Sur, when we stopped at a well-known surf break at Playa Yankee. The road in and out of this beach was probably the hairiest we’d been on and would have been impossible without some serious all wheel drive. The tide was about dead low and there was nothing breaking so I asked a couple of locals if there were any fish around. They said there were, so I asked about oysters. To my surprise, they actually knew what I was talking about and said they were around as well, although there isn’t really a market for them. Curious, I took my fly rod down to the rocks and threw a couple casts, all the while scoping the lowest reaching rocks for signs of life.

Sure enough on a concealed edge of rock close to the water line, I saw the unmistakable remnants of a bivalve set. Upon further examination, there were a handful of individuals still alive that appeared to be oysters. Although too small for consumption they were nonetheless oysters, Ostrea conchaphila perhaps, a close relative of the Olympia, which is native to the West coast of North America

When I got back Stateside, I did a little digging and turns out there is an oyster industry in Ostional. Traditionally run by women, which might explain why I didn’t get anywhere, I only spoke with men! I managed to find a couple links to a proposed project to formalize the oyster harvesting industry in the area.

http://blog.pasopacifico.org/2014/03/a-womens-cooperative-oyster-farm/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shyeLvGkr4A