Can You Feel Good About Eating Oysters?

Been hearing a lot about oysters lately?

Often equated with luxurious brunches where the bubbles flow freely, oysters are in fact quite a simple food. You don’t have to do much to prepare them (except learn how to shuck), and while a good mignonette sauce will go a long way, purists will tell you that eating an oyster “naked” is the only way to go. Okay, maybe a squeeze of lemon for good measure.

But while they may come off as a simple food, they are an integral part of a complicated system of aquaculture, with many benefits to the environment around them.

In the last month the New York Times has made a video about oysters, calling their revival a “national oyster binge,” and Bon Appetit has taken us to oyster heartland (the Pacific Northwest). With more and more bars and restaurants putting oysters on their menus, it is safe to say that oysters are having a bit of a comeback. And when thinking about food and the environment, that can be a good thing.

About 5 percent of the oysters sold in the U.S. are wild, in the sense that local species spawn on their own accord, but most American oyster farmers buy seeds from hatcheries. Those oyster farms actually do much more good than harm, and while farmed fish can get a bad name, most oyster farming operations are well managed and have positive effects on their surrounding environments. So much so that there are even nonprofits devoted to water quality that promote oyster farming, like the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. There are also efforts on both coasts to restore wild stocks of oysters to better benefit the environment.

For example, thanks to oysters, the water of Duxbury Bay, where the famed Island Creek Oysters farms their bivalves, is filtered every nine days. That filtering makes the waterway a thriving environment, welcoming to many other species. They also filter out phytoplankton, which brings in more sunlight and encourages more plants to grow. This is good for both crabs and fish.

No pesticides are needed for oysters. No weird antibiotics. No forest destruction to grow them. No need to feed them corn. When it comes down to it: oysters are just good ol’ oysters, beneficial to the environment in which they are grown as well as the person that eats them, providing protein, vitamins and minerals. If you’re starting to have an oyster obsession, join the club.

There’s also the vegan oyster debate, some claiming, for ethical reasons, that it’s ok for vegans to eat oysters. Others don’t agree at all, but it’s a compelling enough argument that it continues to get a lot of discussion. Ultimately, I think we can all agree that if you are going to be eating any type of meat product, you are much better off with oysters than you are with a steak. And in terms of sustainable seafood, oysters are one of your best bets.

But if you’re looking for a basic oyster guideline, it’s exactly the same as all other foods: eat local.

If you can get oysters from further down the coast, there’s no need to eat ones imported from across the world. After all, just like wines have a terroir, oysters take the taste of their surroundings, and part of the joy in eating them is discovering the differences in flavor that come from eating oysters in a new place.

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Image: Virginia Sea Grant