The Power of the Oyster

Drakes Bay Oysters Oyster Power

Oysters filter and clean water. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day! In areas of the world where oyster populations have dramatically diminished, the rest of the wildlife and marine life has also suffered. Without oysters, these waters become too high in nutrients making them ideal growing areas for algae, creating plumes of “dead areas” and eliminating other life forms. Throughout the United States and the rest of the world, environmentalists recognize how much oysters contribute to the environment, and are instituting programs where millions of seed oysters are now being cultured, grown and harvested.

Drakes Estero has the finest water quality in the state of California, one reason Drakes Bay Oyster Farm was able to produce some of the finest oysters in the world. The closing of the farm by the National Park Service deprived California of roughly 40% of its local oysters.

The shellfish species raised by the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm was the Pacific Oyster. The water temperature of Drakes Estero is too cold for these non-native oysters to spawn on their own, so they were seeded by hand.

The Drakes Bay Oyster Farm produced its own shellfish seed by performing remote setting on-farm. This advanced hatchery technique allowed the farm to curtail the purchasing of seed (small shellfish) from producers in other waters and thus reduce to zero the risk of introduction of contaminates and non-native species.

At Drakes Bay Oyster Company, oysters grew either as singles or in clusters. The singles were grown as individuals from the larval stage. The single oysters were produced in the indoor hatchery located on-farm, then moved to the growing area in mesh bags to resist predation from Bat Rays. Clusters were created by setting many larvae on shells saved from the shucking and packing operation. These “mother” shells containing the oyster spat (baby oysters) were then strung together on wires and suspended, from historic wooden racks, in the waters of Drakes Estero. These cluster oysters were shucked and packed in jars in the Drakes Bay’s on-farm facility. That facility, created by Kevin Lunny when he revived the farm, was the last shucking and packing plant in California. Now that the farm has been shut down, chefs and consumers no longer have a local source of fine jarred oysters, and conservation projects such as the successful Snowy Plover project no longer have a source of clean local shells.

Oyster facts:

1.  Oyster farming is 17 times as productive as ranching (in terms of protein per acre). Oyster farming is incredibly efficient, requiring no feed, no fertilizers, no chemicals, no cultivation, and no consumption of fresh water. Drakes Bay Oyster Farm produces 500,000 lbs of shucked oyster meat each year on less than 150 acres of water bottom. It is estimated that it would take more than 30,000 acres of pasture to produce the equivalent amount of protein on a grass-based beef operation.  It takes roughly 12,000 gallons of fresh water to produce one pound of feedlot beef.

2.  Oysters are nature’s best source of the mineral zinc, with up to 100mg per gram (second on the list is ginger root at 7mg per gram). Zinc is good for your skin, good for your immune system, and speeds up healing after an injury.

3.  All oysters are capable of creating pearls, but pearls from edible oysters have no market value. The pearls used in jewlery are from the Feathered Oyster in the Pteriidae family. Over the years, the workers in the Drakes Bay Oyster cannery have found quite a few small pearls. Ask to see them when you visit the oyster farm!

4. Oysters taste like the place they are grown. Just as the same grapes grown in different places have site-specific flavors called “terroir,” the same oysters grown in different places have site-specific flavors, sometimes called “merroir.” The salinity of the water in which they are grown and the specific nature of what the oysters eat contribute to their flavor.  Oyster author Rowan Jacobson has a fun oyster guide at his website:  What Kind of Oyster Eater Are You?  According to this guide, Drakes Bay Oysters appeal to “The Clean Freak:  You prefer filter feeders from pristine waters.”  Check out the guide to learn about the handful of other oysters grown in equally pristine places—two of which are in Canadian national parks (Raspberry Points in Prince Edward Island National Park and Imperial Eagle Channels in Pacific Rim National Park).

5.  Oysters clean the water; for this reason oyster restoration efforts are under way. Oysters help waterways by eating algae, filtering out particulates and excess nutrients, and creating habitat for other organisms to thrive. One oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water in 24 hours. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is actively promoting oyster restoration, including restoring native oysters in the Chesapeake Bay; these efforts are accelerating, especially in Harris Creek, where 22 acres of reefs were built in 2012, and 34 acres are planned for 2013. Oyster restoration is also under way in Florida, California, and Massachusetts, among other places. The Oyster Restoration Workgroup is very active in this area—read about their efforts here.

Update: Drakes Bay Oysters are no longer available. The National Park Service shut down the oyster farm and destroyed the historic buildings. The following information remains on this page as a tribute to all that was achieved by Team Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.

Five Reasons to Buy Drakes Bay Oysters:

1. Locally & Sustainably Grown: We are a fourth-generation Marin County farming family, completely committed to sustainable farming practices and local marketing of our oysters.

2. Environmentally Friendly: At Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, we use environmentally friendly growing techniques, including an off-bottom, Japanese-inspired, “hanging culture” method. Used by less than 5% of U.S. oyster farmers, this method requires labor-intensive hand harvesting, resulting in our uniquely flavored, ultra-clean oysters.

3. Unsurpassed Freshness: We grow our oysters in the pristine waters of Drakes Estero in Marin County. And because we daily harvest, shuck and pack these award-winning oysters, they have no equal in freshness.

4. Exceptional Water Quality: We are the only shellfish farmers within the Point Reyes National Seashore, where a small, protected and undeveloped watershed surrounds us. Our farm contains California’s finest shellfish water quality—that’s why we are the only farm in California allowed to harvest year- round. The waters of Drakes Estero give our oysters the “taste of their place”!

5. Historical Significance: Drakes Bay Oyster Farm is home to California’s last operating oyster cannery, where we have been shucking and packing our oysters on-farm for over 70 years. In choosing Drakes Bay oysters, you are helping to preserve a precious piece of California’s history.