It takes several lifetimes to master the art of oystering. Just ask Mike McGee, third-generation Chincoteague waterman and vice president of strategy for Ballard Fish & Oyster Company, who holds the majority of leases of the island’s famed oyster beds, where wild and cultured shellfish are harvested 52 weeks a year.
Steering Miss Linda, the boat named for his wife of 48 years, into Chincoteague Bay on a perfect morning last summer, McGee explains how wild oysters naturally attach their spat (larvae) to shells and rocks, while cultureds are spawned by Ballard’s biologist from wild brood stock. These varieties (Pope’s Bay, Chincoteague Cultured, and Misty Points) are triploid (neutered) in a process that interrupts cellular meiosis and renders them sterile by nature. “Because triploids don’t spawn, they don’t lose meat content like wild oysters do in summer,” McGee says, discrediting the popular myth that oysters should only be eaten in months ending in R.
Approximately 16 miles into the wilderness of Pope’s Bay, a hidden universe takes shape beneath the quiet waters. Millions of cultured oysters thrive “in the same area where the mamas and papas came from,” says McGee. “This makes for the perfect oyster; the salinity is high—it’s the primo oyster we sell throughout the US.” Some non-paying customers agree. The oysters are grown out in bags, cages, and fenced pens; otherwise blue crabs and horn-nosed rays “will really hurt us,” McGee explains. “A school of rays can eat a million oysters a night.” As for two-legged poachers, McGee makes random patrols in the wee hours, packing a pistol (with permit, of course).
Jumping off the boat fully clothed, he plucks a handful of Misty Points, shucking them on the spot. Perfect. Wild Chincoteague Salts are harvested with a small hammer in a process called culling. McGee estimates they take two and a half to three years to reach market size (three to four inches). “If somebody tells you somethin’ different, I’ll argue with ’em.” As for cultureds, the spat is placed on shells to grow out, sorted in the water every two to three months, and eventually harvested by hand or with a small dredge. These take nine months to a year to reach market size. Says McGee, “We’re the only place I know of in America who can do that.”