COVID-19, cooler temperatures imperil sales of Baltimore's briny bounty

By Christine Condon
The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore — Sitting outside Mama's on the Half Shell restaurant in this town's Canton neighborhood, Alisha Gladfelter painted the newly christened "Shuck Shack," an outdoor oyster bar complete with a grill fashioned from a keg. The swirl of a mermaid's tail — part of the restaurant's logo — flowed from the tip of her paintbrush.

Mama's Shuck Shack is a sign of the times, as much as homemade face masks and ubiquitous bottles of hand sanitizer, an effort to encourage passersby to try one of the succulent bivalves or a dozen, either roasted or raw.

Latoria Shephard of Baltimore downs a raw oyster while sitting with William Gaskins, who ordered oysters Rockefeller at Mama's on the Half Shell in Canton. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Maryland's wild oyster season starts in October, but restaurants, watermen and others worry the coronavirus pandemic will stifle demand for the bay's briny bounty. With few people dining out at restaurants and colder weather limiting outdoor dining, some in the seafood industry worry customers won't venture out for oysters on the half shell and po'boys.

Throughout Maryland's summer crab season, demand for the crustaceans remained fairly steady, even with crab houses and seafood restaurants closed or otherwise limited by the pandemic. True to form, Marylanders stuck by their crabs, picking up carryout bushels for smaller home-based feasts.

But carryout oysters? Remains to be seen.

"Most people don't know how to shuck oysters without cutting themselves up real bad," said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

On top of it all, 2020 is poised to be a fairly good oyster season in the bay, scientists say, compounding worries that more oysters will be harvested than can be sold.

Both 2016 and 2017 were above-average years for oyster reproduction, said Allison Colden, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland fisheries scientist. Those young oysters — now grown-ups — have spurred a rebound this year after 2018 and 2019, particularly rainy years that dumped freshwater into the bay, scarring oyster populations.

As a result, in 2019, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources banned commercial harvesting on Wednesdays and installed lower bushel limits for watermen.

Still, Maryland's waterman pulled nearly twice as wild oysters — more than 270,000 bushels — from the state's waters last season as they did the year before, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Natural Resources.

"We were concerned last year that those actions may not be enough to address some of the overfishing we were seeing," Colden said. "There were some slight improvements, but those may have been due to the oysters that were already in the water."

In some ways, 2020 could provide opportunity for a natural experiment. The workings of supply and demand could reduce the amount of oysters pulled from the bay and its tributaries, which might be just what the doctor ordered, Colden said. But policymakers must be mindful of the market's impact on watermen, she said, and consider financial aid.

"With the start of the public oyster season in October, we're now adding more oysters to the market, which is already depressed," Colden said.

Oyster prices are considerably lower than at this time last year, according to the Watermen's Association. Oyster farms, which sell oysters beyond the wild oyster season, already have felt the effects.

"The market's not there like it was last year," Brown said. "Normally you have big oyster festivals, you have your church dinners ... you're not seeing that this year."

At Mama's on the Half Shell, not only is the oyster shack new this year, the restaurant also is selling a to-go kit for the first time, featuring a dozen oysters, a shucking knife and a how-to guide. "Take it Shuckin' Home," the guide reads.

At the shack, customers can purchase small amounts of oysters to-go, shucked in front of them, and perhaps grilled. The shack is licensed to sell alcoholic drinks, too, meaning there's orange crushes aplenty, said Bob Simko, Mama's operations manager.

Ryleigh's Oyster in Timonium has offered to-go oysters before, with limited success, said owner Brian McComas. This year, carry-out options have become more important than ever, but take-home oysters could take a while to catch on, he said.

"People definitely want to come out and watch the shucker do the work," McComas said.

For the Maryland Department of Agriculture's seafood marketing team, the pandemic presented an opportunity to expand a pre-existing campaign to encourage locals to cook Maryland seafood at home.

Normally, that campaign includes in-person events featuring chefs' takes on Maryland seafood, but lately it's become a social media effort. It's drawn increased traffic to the team's website, which features recipes for oyster and crab meat, curated by local chefs.

"This is the perfect time to really help consumers become more comfortable with cooking these oysters and other seafood products at home," said Stone Slade, director of seafood marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The pandemic already has had an outsized impact on oyster farmers. After the closure of restaurants in March, Harris Creek Oyster Co. started devising ways to sell its stock directly to customers, cutting out the distributors that normally sell their product to restaurants, accounting for about 70% of their business.

It was crucial, not just economically, but ecologically, said Alex Johnston, the owner and president of the oyster farm in Talbot County. The bigger oysters have to be removed from their cages to make way for growing juveniles.

So the company has driven truckloads of thousands of oysters to pop-up events in Annapolis and Baltimore. Customers pre-order dozens of un-shucked oysters, and can watch live shucking demonstrations.

The farm also began offering oysters on the half shell that customers could enjoy on-site, he said. Some customers ventured from as far as Baltimore to the farm in St. Michaels, to pick up the oysters practically straight from their underwater perches. It's a first for the farm.

"I think there's huge demand right now for oysters and for healthy sustainable foods," Johnston said. "Restaurants are not really where that demand is being satisfied."

But on a sunny, 70-degree fall day in Canton, a smattering of customers dined at outdoor tables beside Mama's restaurant, some slurping oysters from their pockmarked gray shells.

As Tomia and Aaliyah Caballero eyed a plate of oysters on the half shell, they talked about ordering oysters to-go, and the shucking that'd come along with it.

"Why not?" Tomia said.

"Because it's a lot of work," said Aaliyah, giggling from across the table.