Meet the Oyster

Oysters are part of a group of bivalve mollusks that typically live in marine or brackish-type habitats. Grouped together, they are commonly found in what is known as a bed or oyster reef. The largest oyster-producing bed is currently in Chesapeake Bay and other large beds can also be found in Australia and Japan. However, overfishing and pollution is starting take a toll on oyster beds around the world and is one of the reasons that contribute to the oyster's increasing scarcity as well as higher price in restaurants and seafood markets alike. Oysters are helpful to many smaller marine species such as barnacles and sea anemones as their beds and spacing between shells can provide a habitat for those that are looking to hide from prey. Aside from people, other common oyster predators include birds, crabs and sea stars.

Oysters are gathered from their beds in shallower waters usually by hand or by using a small rake. They are typically scraped into small heaps or piles and then gathered by hand. They can also be collected by divers and long handled rakes or tongs in deeper water. Dredging is another practice of collecting oysters in which a toothed bar is connected to a chain and dragged along behind a boat. Although a faster method of collecting oysters, the use of this practice is highly supervised and restricted as it can heavily damage the oyster beds.

Though many people believe that all oysters can yield that precious ocean gem we know as pearls, only Pearl oysters yield natural and cultured pearls of significant value. Another common misconception involving the pearl is that it is created when an oyster ingests a bit of sand. It is actually created when a tiny, invading parasite enters the oyster and the oyster secretes a film called nacre that builds up around the parasite. Over time, enough layers cover the irritant and it eventually becomes a pearl. Pearls can come in many different colors and shapes but it typically depends on the shape of the invading parasite within the oyster and the color of the pigment of nacre it secretes. This knowledge may cause some females to have second thoughts before putting on a piece of pearl jewelry but no matter how it is formed, pearls are still considered to be one of the most beautiful gems in existence.

Since the early 20th century, the practice of creating cultured pearls was born and occurs when farmers place a piece of polished mussel shell inside the oyster. Several years later, the perfect pearl can be harvested and though not as valuable as natural pearls they are virtually identical and the cultured pearl market today far overshadows the natural one. Many other shell-bearing mollusks can also produce pearls, but not ones with much value. The only other mollusks aside from oysters that can produce valuable pearls are freshwater mussels.

Due to discoveries of various middens (shell heaps) around the world, history shows that oysters have been utilized for human consumption since Roman times. In the 19th century, they were eaten mainly by the working class, as they were cheap and plentiful. During this time, oyster beds in the New York harbor became the largest oyster source in the world as six million oysters could be found each day on barges along New York City's waterfront. The gigantic oyster population in this area helped begin New York City's restaurant industry. Eventually, rising demand and overharvesting soon began to deplete many of the once bountiful beds. The scarcity ended up increasing the prices, which meant that they were no longer a daily staple of the working class diet and became the expensive delicacy that we enjoy today.

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North Carolina Oyster Festival: Meet the Oyster

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