In colonial Philadelphia oysters sellers clattered up and down the shell-paved streets hawking a bounty of oysters to be eaten raw, in stew, in oyster pies or fried over coals and served with chicken salad. They were so abundant and that cheap oysters were sold off carts the way hot dogs are today.
At the oyster industry’s peak in 1880, 2.4 million bushels (each bushel contained roughly 285 oysters) were harvested from the Delaware Bay where 1,400 boats plied these waters, employing 2,300 men. Towns along the bay like Bivalve were processing hubs where thousands of workers shucked and canned oysters.
Bay oysters once streamed out of here. Schooners and oystermen harvested the bivalves for local oyster houses. Prized for their fine flavor and plump, firm meat, the Cape May Salts were collected in barrels, loaded onto trucks and dispatched to Philadelphia. The mollusks were also headed for restaurants in New York, northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco. Windfall profits from the oyster industry could be seen in the dazzling Victorian mansions that dotted the beaches of Cape May.
By the 1920s the once fertile oyster beds had become exhausted from overfishing. Then, in the late 1950s, the beds were nearly wiped out by a parasitic disease known as MSX. In 1990 another parasite called Dermo struck, killing young oysters before they could reach marketable size. It’s been a constant struggle. Beyond the waves of disease harvests have declined precipitously due to over-aggressive fishing, environmental hazards and poor management.
Still, over the past fifteen years the Cape May Salt has begun to make a comeback. The modern-day Salts are a collaboration of Atlantic Capes Fisheries and Rutgers University’s shellfish research lab. The goal is to develop and commercialize high quality, disease-resistant oysters. Cultivated by hand, the baby oysters were reintroduced to the southernmost part of the Delaware Bay, about 12 miles upstream from Cape May. Utilizing a low environmental-impact system of cultivation first tried and tested in France, the tasty, little Salts are now raised through "rack and bag" oyster farming.
The annual oyster harvest surged from 36,600 bushels in the 1990s to 78,000 bushels last year. Oyster harvesting generates $4 million for local growers, according to the State Department of Environmental Protection. It also brings in $20 million in economic activity—the side effects beyond the oystermen’s sales. New Jersey is among 18 states that harvest oysters with 13,000 acres of oyster beds.
Traditionally, oystermen head out in a boat and scoop wild oysters off the floor of the bay with either tongs or a dredge. Adopting the “rack and bag” technique, Atlantic Capes Fisheries uses aquaculture to help nature along. Finger-nail size baby mollusks make their homes in mesh bags laid on rows and rows of metal racks along the Delaware Bay that protects the oysters from predators such as whelks and birds.
At high tide, the oysters are covered by five feet of water. At low tide the oysters are exposed and the farmers can walk out and harvest them. Cape May Salts grow faster and meatier than oysters in the wild. Within two years-- a full year sooner than natural oysters-- the Cape May Salts grow to three inches and are harvested and ready to be sold to restaurants and seafood markets, primarily from Boston through Virginia.
The Atlantic Capes Fisheries' fleet calls the port of Cape May home. A multi-vessel owner, Atlantic Capes is among the largest fleet operators in North America.
"For four hours a day, during the low-tide times, our oysters are exposed to air, which closes their shells up tight, and over time they develop a tighter shell as they mature," said Brian Harman, the oyster farm manager for Atlantic Capes Fisheries. "This extends the shelf life of the oysters for market because they retain a lot of moisture within their shells.
“The exposure to low tide and different types of weather that results from the intertidal method helps the oysters develop a harder shell and a higher meat-to-shell ratio than those obtained through traditional harvesting. It’s a higher yield meaning the meat fills the shell nearly completely. If they’re refrigerated the Salts are still good two to three weeks later.”
Harman relates that they dodged a bullet with super-storm Sandy last fall, experiencing minimal damage. Last year 1.4 million Cape May Salts were sold. Harman projects that number to jump to upwards of 2 million in 2013.
Few foodstuffs are as pure a reflection of a location as an oyster which tastes like the waters where it lives. The cool, food-rich waters of the lower Delaware give the Cape May Salts a firm and plump succulent meat with a mild salty-sweet flavor. The shell of the oyster is clean with a deep cup.
Another helping hand has come from the Slow Foods International movement. The Cape May Salt has been awarded the Slow Foods Presidia title which recognizes projects that defend the world's heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic traditions. Slow Foods has also opened up its network of restaurants and grassroots gourmet exposure to give the Cape May Salt its chance to shine.