Jess Goldman blogs at Sodium Girl.
Choosing seafood that is both healthy and sustainable can seem more and more challenging every day. Oysters, on the other hand, are an easy choice.
Alongside farmed mussels, Pacific sardines, and rainbow trout, these bivalves just made the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Super Green List, meaning they are good for the environment and, because they contain relatively few harmful toxins by comparison, equally beneficial to your health.
We asked Terry Sawyer (pictured above), the chief biologist and co-founder of Hog Island Oyster Company, a few questions about the oysters he raises — and about what makes these summer treats a super green choice.
CUESA: What makes oyster farming sustainable?
Terry Sawyer: First, oysters are considered a keystone species, which means they naturally benefit from and support the environment where they grow. Like clams and mussels, they’re filter feeders and can filter up to 50 gallons of seawater a day. This action helps keep the Bay water clean and allows other marine life to thrive.
[While a great deal of farmed seafood relies on wild seafood and other animal-based protein as feed], Hog Island farmers do not use any added food to boost oyster production. Farmed oysters feed on plankton and micronutrients that exist naturally in the marine environment and no man-made nutrients are added.
Finally, oyster farmers, by trade, are invested in protecting the environments where the oysters are raised. At Hog Island, staff constantly monitors the water quality and conditions of Tomales Bay and we’re actively involved in efforts to protect and restore the surrounding watershed.
CUESA: What do you say to people who still subscribe to the rule: ”only eat oysters in months with an R in them”?
TS: Wild oysters harvested on the East Coast were often shipped across the U.S. (via train, packed in wooden barrels, and kept on ice). It was difficult to keep fresh oysters cold and alive during the summer months. Thus, for health and safety, it became a “best practice” to refrain from eating them from May through August.
Wild oysters also spawn, or reproduce, during the warmer summer months and for conservation reasons, oyster harvesting would cease during these times. But today, farmed oysters are safe to eat all year long and they account for 95 percent of the world’s total oyster consumption.
CUESA: What oysters are best to eat during the summer months?
TS: We recommend grilling our small or medium Sweetwaters. They’re Pacific oysters, which means they’ll begin to spawn during the warmer water months, and that makes them fat and creamy, which is less appealing for a raw bar but phenomenally sweet and delicious for cooking. Because we farm in three distinct areas within Tomales Bay, we can always find some Pacific oysters that are great for eating raw in the summer, too — it just takes a little more work.
We are also beginning to harvest Kumamoto and Atlantic varieties, which we grow specifically because they are great to eat raw on the half shell all summer long.
CUESA: How do you like to eat your oysters?
TS: I enjoy the fresh simple flavors of Hog Island Oysters grilled “Farm Style” (from The Hog Island Oyster Lover’s Cookbook: A Guide to Choosing and Savoring Oysters, Ten Speed Press, 2007).
Photo of Terry Sawyer by Anne Dowie.
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »