In its day, the Lynnhaven oyster was prized by celebrities and regular folks alike. Pollution nearly killed off the mollusk, but the seafood classic is making a comeback.
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Cameron Chalmers, right, and first mate Andre Aleixo of Lynnhaven River Oyster Co. on the pier, holding oyster bags.
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Cameron Chalmers, right, and first mate Andre Aleixo of Lynnhaven River Oyster Co. on the pier, holding oyster bags.
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With the help of a small crane and winch, Chalmers and Aleixo hoist the oyster cages on board and hose them off.
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Sorting young oysters
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A handful ready to go into nets
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Culling dead oyster from the cages
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Morning light on the river
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A conservation reef made of, and for, oysters
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Lifting a cage of young bivalves for washing
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Native grasses help the ecosystem
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Oysters ready for market
Summer’s hazy heat is still a few weeks off as Cameron Chalmers powers up his fiberglass bulldog—a boat made for clamming and oystering—and motors out across the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach. Calm waters, a cloudless blue sky and comfortable temps make this a fine day to be out on the water, and Chalmers, in his early 30s, smiles as a cool breeze dances by. You can tell he loves being on the river.
Wearing neon-orange overalls, white rubber boots and a baby-blue visor that matches his eyes, Chalmers, with his mate, works the oyster lines—underwater cables linked to hundreds of cages overflowing with growing oysters. with the help of a pulley, the men haul a heavy cage out of the river onto the deck of the gleaming white boat, where they take turns spraying off the oysters with a high-pressure hose. Keeping the oysters clean helps them grow better, Chalmers says.
Today Chalmers is one of a handful of oystermen working on the Lynnhaven River, trying to resurrect the famous Lynnhaven oyster from its watery grave. in late 2007, commercial shellfishing became a viable industry on the river for the first time in decades when the Virginia Department of Health opened up nearly a third of its 5,100 acres for safe shellfish harvest. That’s when Chalmers sold his landscaping business and, with the encouragement of his father and Cliff Love, a family friend, decided to devote all his energy to his fledgling business, the Lynnhaven Oyster Company, which he had founded in 2004. “They believed in the cause,” Chalmers says. Now he leases more than 500 acres of river bottom for his aquaculture enterprise.
While Chalmers has yet to show a profit, he gets a gleam in his determined blue eyes when he thinks about the future. This winter, he expects to harvest 50-60 bushels a week. “The distributors want to make sure we have enough,” he says. That’s why he often shares equipment and trades favors with other Lynnhaven oystermen like John Meekins and Pete Dixon. “We help each other out,” Chalmers says. “The more people that succeed, the more Lynnhaven oysters we can get to the market.”
Public demand for the oysters is growing. Lynnhavens on the half shell are appearing on the menus of Hampton roads restaurants and are also available at seafood markets (see sidebar). Prices are high, but no one seems to mind paying a little extra to indulge in this historic bivalve.
Lynnhaven oysters are giant and gorgeous: Rippled white edges contrast with the charcoal grays, mellow browns and subtle greens that color the rest of the shells. The presence of these cages full of luscious oysters that not long ago were deemed unfit to eat is a testament to the passion of oyster-men, environmentalists, businessmen, educators and just plain folk—who came together to clean up a river and to honor the memory of a symbol of times past: the Lynnhaven oyster.
What is it about Lynnhaven oysters that makes people so passionate? Ask Karen Forget (for-ZHAy), the director of Lynnhaven River Now, an organization begun in 2002 whose sole mission is to clean up the river. “The oyster holds a lot of historical significance,” the former biology teacher says, “and a lot of memories for people growing up in the area. And they’re absolutely delicious oysters!”
Diamond Jim Brady, a wealthy New york City businessman with a prodigious appetite, would agree: He once indulged in three-dozen Lynnhavens during one of his legendary feasts. Sinclair Lewis wrote about Lynnhaven oysters in Babbitt and Main Street. Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress, received a bushel of Lynnhaven “fancies” in Paris, shipped by an admirer who fed the oysters oatmeal and salt water during the two weeks it took for them to cross the ocean. They arrived intact, according to a New York Times articled dated May 1, 1888. “Virginians in their modest way assert that most of the Lynn Haven product is eaten by crowned heads, who are supposed to reside in Europe,” the article also notes. “It is safe to say most of them are eaten by the crowned heads of New-york.” The selling price in Norfolk at the time was $3.50 per bushel.
if you dig even deeper into the history books, you’ll find Lynnhaven oysters fed our earliest settlers. George Percy, who sailed with Capt. John Smith, kept journals of his adventures and wrote about his first experience with the oysters. In 1607, Percy joined a landing party that went ashore near Lynnhaven Inlet, where the river—technically an estuary—spreads its tentacles southward from the Chesapeake Bay into the heart of Virginia Beach.
The explorers surprised a group of Native Americans. “They had made a great fire,” Percy wrote, “and been newly roasting oysters. when they perceived our coming, they fled .... We ate some of the oysters, which were very large and delicate in taste.” Ancient oyster middens in First Landing State Park, which borders the north side of the waterway, attest to the oysters’ popularity among the area’s earliest inhabitants.
Known for their large size and salty flavor, Lynnhavens hold a special place in the hearts of Virginia Beach locals. Richard Norman, 75, remembers digging for oysters 50 or 60 years ago. “We dug up oysters as big as your fist,” he says after enjoying a plate of the local delicacies at Lynnhaven River Now’s annual oyster roast, held every spring.
Andrew Fine, businessman and community activist—and one of the founders of Lynnhaven River Now (LRN)—proudly shows off a hefty specimen 7 inches across and says the oysters have been known to grow to the size of dinner plates. “When i was a kid, there used to be a dozen shacks along the mouth of the Lynnhaven, where you could go order up a dozen,” he says. For health reasons, Fine doesn’t eat oysters anymore, but his eyes shine behind his glasses and a rueful grin lights up his face when he remembers the pleasure they used to bring. “I love oysters,” he says, “how they slide right off the shell into your mouth.”
Fine started LRN in 2002 with Bob Stanton, another local businessman, and Harry Lester, president of Eastern Virginia Medical School. “It’s our duty to clean up the river,” Fine remembers telling Lester. He adds, “we created an umbrella, and various interests came together.” The time was right for this movement to begin, says Fine, who credits the passion of the membership with LRN’s ultimate success. “There are a lot of heroes around.”
The organization, originally called Lynnhaven River 2007, envisioned a simple goal: to clean up the river sufficiently so that by 2007 the Lynnhaven oyster would be safe to eat. “We used the oyster as a metaphor for water quality,” says Fine. “We think the people have become conscious of their behavior ... and changed.”
Karen Forget says rallying the group’s efforts around the oyster was a stroke of brilliance. “To have a real, concrete goal has been part of why the people have embraced the river cleanup so enthusiastically,” she says.
Forget also credits the City of Virginia Beach for its support in helping the group reach its goals. Besides its efforts to install city sewers in some of the older neighborhoods along the river, the city also passed an enforcement ordinance that makes it unlawful to discharge the holding tanks of boats into the waterway. “Illicit discharge ... by even one recreational vessel may release enough bacteria to contaminate an entire square mile of water,” Forget says. “The No-Discharge Zone designation is a state and federal designation and took over two years of work to accomplish. ... The final step, after the Lynnhaven was declared a no-discharge zone, was the City Council’s passing an enforcement ordinance.”
Besides educating area boaters and marinas about the no-discharge zone, LRN is coordinating other efforts to improve the health of the water, says Forget. For example, teaching homeowners to reduce the use of fertilizer makes a huge impact, she explains, since this results in fewer algae blooms and in turn improves water clarity and available oxygen. LRN employs a part-time education coordinator, Helen Kuhns, who focuses her efforts on helping teachers instruct school children about the importance of a healthy waterway. “The students really understand the ways that they can make a personal difference,” Kuhns says. “I have parents who say their children wanted to start making changes right away.” Whether it’s cleaning up their pets’ waste or helping plant sea grasses to create wetlands, Kuhns says children are some of the organization’s best allies.
She also oversees a program called the Pearl School Award for Excellence in Environmental Education. To receive this award, elementary, middle and high schools in the region complete projects related to environmental concepts, earning points in the process. Projects include creating rain gardens, constructing buffers at schools whose property borders the Lynnhaven River, and adopting a waterway.
Schools can also earn points toward their Pearl School designation through participation in an oyster gardening project. Anyone who lives on the Lynnhaven River—or any other oyster-friendly body of water— can do their part to help improve the population of the species by growing oysters. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation offers information packets, seed oysters and instructions for a small fee. “It’s good for the bay,” Cameron Chalmers says. “We hope more people will do it.”
Once the oyster gardeners have grown their oysters for one year, they return them to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for placement on manmade conservation reefs in the Lynnhaven River, where the oysters continue to grow and colonize. Currently the river has a total of 37 acres of conservation oyster reef habitat, which have been seeded with millions of Lynnhaven oysters. The reefs are being built thanks to a partnership of several state and local agencies, including LRN, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the City of Virginia Beach, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and the Fish America Foundation.
One of the reefs, completed in spring, is visible from the Lesner Bridge, which rises above Lynnhaven Inlet. it was created with shells collected by area restaurants as part of LRN’s S.O.S. (Save Oyster Shells) program. Karen Forget calls it “a model of community participation in oyster restoration,” adding, “we will all be able to appreciate it each time we see it from the Lesner Bridge.”
Whit Peace, a computer programmer who lives in Virginia Beach, helps organize river clean-ups several times a year. Putting in their canoes and kayaks at various launch sites around the Lynnhaven River, Peace and other volunteers go scavenger hunting—and they never know quite what they’ll find. “Once we found a two-foot alligator behind Pep Boys on Virginia Beach Boulevard,” Peace says. “One boy found a rifle. We could not shut that kid up for the rest of the day. He wanted to keep it and bring it to show-and-tell, but his dad wouldn’t let him. So we turned it in to the police.”
Typically, the volunteers find trash, bicycles, shopping carts, Styrofoam and lots of plastic. Peace always encourages parents to bring their children to river clean-ups. “If you take kids out to a clean-up, they won’t let their parents throw trash anymore,” he says.
Other initiatives by LRN include rain barrel workshops. Helen Kuhns gets excited when she explains how something as simple as placing a rain barrel under your downspout can help save the river. “Rain barrels are a way to reduce run-off from your property,” she says. “The less water that runs off, the less chance of fertilizers and toxins entering the river.” You can use the water you collect to water your houseplants, Kuhn says. “It’s healthier because it doesn’t have chlorine. And it’s free water! Nature’s providing it for us.”
Late afternoon sun slants through large windows, warming LRN’s cozy office in Virginia Beach. Karen Forget, whose bobbed dark hair is sprinkled with gray, takes a break from phone calls and e-mails to talk about the past and the future.
“Population growth is what has created the problem,” she says, noting Virginia Beach’s growth from 11,000 residents in 1905 to 445,000 today. “The things we did in the past don’t work anymore. We have to change our way of thinking about the environment and change our behavior. That’s never easy for people to do,” she says with a wry laugh. “We’ve had some success. To see a marked quantifiable improvement in water quality is really exciting.”
Forget hears frequently from other river organizations seeking help and advice on how to replicate LRN’s success story. “A lot of people are facing the same challenges,” she says. “People like the rural lifestyle, but they bring the urban and suburban problems. The challenge right now is to sustain the energy. We’ll never be finished. We’ll always be working on restoring the water quality and protecting this wonderful asset of the City of Virginia Beach.”
United by a passion for the river and the oyster that calls it home, the people who love the Lynnhaven are gentle souls. They appreciate the simple pleasures of life, such as paddling slowly across the river in a kayak as shorebirds cry overhead and breezes waft through loblolly pines. You’ll find them, calm and still, peering through binoculars at wildlife that live on the river’s edge—the ducks and frogs, the occasional osprey and the insects that flit by. in lawn chairs on wooden docks, they sit in the evening and watch the sun slowly descend westward amid a swirl of colorful clouds.
And when they want to celebrate one of life’s finest pleasures, they gather with friends, pop open a bottle of cold champagne, and savor the simple salty taste of a fresh Lynnhaven oyster, the river’s precious gift. “When you eat an oyster, you’re eating a little piece of the waterway,” Karen Forget says as the waning sunlight casts a golden glow across her desk. “The oyster represents the place.”
Chalmers is cautiously optimistic about the future of his business—and the Lynnhaven oyster. He hopes to see a time when the famous oyster graces the tables of restaurants in New York and “around the world” once again. “Together with the other oystermen, i can see creating a market that extends beyond Virginia Beach,” he says, “like it did years ago.” You can tell Chalmers is proud to be a part of the effort to bring back this historic shellfish.
At the same time, he knows the health of the river depends both on the whims of Mother Nature and the discipline of those who live in the Lynnhaven River watershed. “The trend over the past few years has been positive,” he says, thanks to the “outstanding job” done by LRN. As he says, “It’s the little things that individuals do that make a big impact on the river.”
Lynnhaven River Now: (757) 962-5398 or LynnhavenRiverNow.com ; Lynnhaven River Oyster Company: (757) 435-8740