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Oysters, Boats and Watermen

March 21, 2015 @ 10:00 am - 12:30 pm


PROGRAM IS NOW SOLD OUT! delvin k anchoring in g wiccropOn March 21, 2015, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., David Miller and Jim Westlyn will present a program about the origins and development of their award-winning PBS film, Breathing Life into the Chesapeake: Oysters, Boats and Men.  Tickets are $10 per person, and can be purchased at the door or in advance by calling 804-493-1972.

Event Schedule:

  • 10-10:20 a.m. Light refreshments in the duPont Library
  • 10:20 a.m. Introduction
  • 10:30-11 a.m. Jim Westlyn on the original musical compositions for the film
  • 11-11:05 a.m. Introduction of David Miller, writer and producer of the film
  • 11:05-12 noon Viewing of PBS film Oysters, Boats and Men
  • 12-12:30 p.m. Question and answer session

Lunch Specials – Just for the Day!

Stratford’s chef Richard Ryland is offering lunches specially created for the event in the Dining Room until 3:00 p.m.:


Oyster Rockefeller Soup OR Cream of Spinach Soup, topped with Bacon and Fried Oysters – $6.50

Char-grilled Oysters (3 oysters on the half shell) topped with Garlic Parmesan Butter and served with a crostini – $6.50


Oyster Po’Boy (half-dozen fried oysters topped with coleslaw and rémoulade sauce on a hoagie roll) served with French Fries – $13.00

Oyster Pan Roast (blend of oysters, cream and herbs topped with a bacon Parmesan crust) served with a house salad – $13.00

About Breathing Life TV

Breathing Life TV is a collection of works by independent film producer Dave Miller. Dave resides in Virginia and focuses his films and photography on the Chesapeake Bay region and his travels around the state producing features for the television program “Real Virginia.”

“Breathing Life into the Chesapeake: Of Oysters, Boats, and Men” 2013 is Dave’s successful documentary about the resurgence of the oyster industry in the bay. It follows ten Virginia watermen as they focus on making a living and restoring the oyster to the prominence it has enjoyed in the past.

About the producer:

Virginia Filmmaker Dave Miller developed his passion for film in college. He produces, directs, and manages all aspects of media. Dave earned degrees at both the University of Arizona and at Averett University.  He began his own film company in 2013 and is currently working on documentaries and stories for cable television. He produces films about the Chesapeake Bay and about the wonderful variety of life found in Virginia.

Dave has a fishing boat and has taken navigational courses. He has learned the ropes by trial and error, and by making the big mistakes only once. His father taught him to fish at an early age and it’s become a family activity.

His project for 2015 is “Journey on the Chesapeake: The Way Back Home.” Dave has received numerous national awards. However, what motivates Dave is meeting great people and telling their stories.

Dave Miller had just started his own film company. This was something he wanted to do. Now was the time to produce the film he had been thinking about. A film on the Chesapeake Bay. So he called Ernie Harding to do a story on Virginia watermen. Ernie had never had a job on dry land. Ernie put off Dave’s request for an interview and simply said, “Dave you need to come see the Delvin K.  She may be the last working buy boat on the Chesapeake Bay.” After a few more calls to Ernie, each time getting the same answer, Dave set out with his camera, on a boat, to film the Delvin K. It was time to find out what Ernie was actually up to.

His boat made its way up to Penny Creek on the Great Wicomico River. Dave found Ernie filling his 25-foot Parker Oyster boat. There was a huge mound of oyster spat on shells to be delivered to the rivers and creeks along the bay. He followed Ernie into Sisson’s dock and watched him unload his shells by the bushel. The tally man checked off those bushels and Dave found his story. All of the activity added up to Virginia watermen working hard to bring back a way of life and a statewide industry that had almost become extinct.

Dave followed numerous watermen down the Potomac River and along the western shore of the Chesapeake. He learned about dredging, tonging, and aquaculture of oysters. He witnessed the men and women locked on the task of farming these shellfish both in the wild and in cages and floats. This was the real story of the oyster comeback. It is growing, with harvests in 2012 of over $28 million dollars. That’s more dockside value than rockfish. It’s more than croaker. Yes, it’s even more value than Blue Crabs.

The film is storytelling at its best. It’s visual history seen with many private and museum photos and through tales that could only be told by the watermen themselves.

Attendees of the film will also be able to view historic oystering artifacts on display, courtesy of The Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.

About Oysters and Ecology:

[From the Chesapeake Bay Foundation website: https://www.chesapeakebay.net/blog/post/question_of_the_week_what_role_do_oysters_play_in_the_bays_health]

Oysters are vital to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, but are in serious need of continued restoration to thrive. Oysters are extremely significant both economically and ecologically in the Chesapeake Bay region, but without effective management of the oyster fishery, the bivalve — which is still at just 1 percent of historic levels — will continue to suffer.

When populations are sufficient, oysters create reefs that can provide a large area of nooks and crevices for aquatic species. Oyster reefs can create 50 times the hard habitat surface area of a mudflat of the same size. Many Bay species, including sponges, sea squirts, and small crabs and fishes, need the hard surfaces provided by these oyster reefs to survive.

Another important function oysters play in the Bay ecosystem is their role as a filter feeder. Oysters pump large volumes of water through their gills to filter out plankton and other particles, including algae, suspended sediments and chemical contaminants. One oyster can filter more than 50 gallons per day.

Because of the importance of oysters, several organizations around the watershed are building artificial reefs from recycled oyster shells and other hard materials. Artificial reefs provide habitat that is similar to natural oyster reefs, giving oyster spat (baby oysters) the hard surfaces they need to attach to and survive. Over time, it is expected that oysters will build up on the artificial reefs and create natural reefs.

There has also been a lot of focus on raising baby oysters in hatcheries, protecting existing oyster reefs as harvest-free “sanctuaries,” and developing and promoting oyster aquaculture programs. Other projects, such as Marylanders Grow Oysters and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster gardening, get citizens involved in restoring oysters.

The Bay’s oyster population may never be as healthy as it once was, but with new and innovative restoration efforts taking place across the region, it seems like it will be possible for oysters to continue to be an important part of the Bay ecosystem for many years to come.

Why are oysters important to the Chesapeake Bay?

You don’t have to like eating this peculiar-looking bivalve to appreciate its vital role in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and its importance to people in the region.

Oysters filter water
Oysters are natural filter feeders. This means they feed by pumping water through their gills, trapping particles of food as well as nutrients, suspended sediments and chemical contaminants. In doing so, oysters help keep the water clean and clear for bay grasses and other aquatic life. One oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water in a single day.

Oysters offer habitat and food
As oysters grow, larvae settle on top of adults, forming layers of oysters that spread upward and outward. With their countless nooks and crannies, these aquatic reefs provide habitat to hundreds of critters, from small fish and invertebrates seeking shelter to larger fish looking for food.

Oysters have a number of natural predators
• Anemones, sea nettles and other filter feeders feed on oyster larvae
• Flatworms and mud crabs feed on new spat
• Blue crabs and some fish feed on older spat and first-year oysters
• Shorebirds feed on adult oysters exposed on intertidal flats

Oysters are historically and economically important
Since the late nineteenth century, the oyster industry—including the catch, sale, shucking, packing and shipping of oysters—has contributed millions of dollars to the region’s economy. Oysters have also added to the region’s historical and cultural heritage, inspiring the unique design of the skipjack and fueling countless bull and oyster roasts.

What caused the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population to decline?

The decline of the Chesapeake Bay’s native oyster population can be attributed to several factors, including historic over-harvesting, disease and habitat loss. The severity of this decline is often illustrated in terms of its impact on water quality: in the late nineteenth century, the Bay’s oysters could filter a volume of water equal to that of the entire Bay in three or four days; today’s population takes nearly a year to filter this same amount.


Large oyster excavated at 18th-century site at Stratford

Large oyster excavated at 18th-century site at Stratford

Historic over-harvesting
In the seventeenth century, huge numbers of oysters lived in the Bay. European settlers reported enormous oyster reefs that thrust up from the Bay’s bottom, posing navigational hazards to their ships. Colonists first used hand tongs to harvest oysters, but by the 1800s, dredges were also in use. In the 1850s, more than 1.5 million bushels of oysters were harvested from the Bay each year; three decades later, this number jumped to 20 million. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Bay’s oyster fishery was one of the most important in the United States.

But over-harvesting removed huge volumes of oysters from the Bay and led to the demise of the Bay’s healthy reefs. Because these reefs have been scraped away by dredges, oyster beds are now often limited to flat, thin layers of dead shell and live oysters spread over the Bay’s bottom. These damaged habitats offer less surface area for reef-dwelling critters to inhabit, and can be easily buried by sediment.

In 1949, scientists discovered Dermo in the Bay. MSX was discovered in the region a decade later. Dermo, or Perkinsus marinus, is a parasite that most often infects oysters during their second year of life, causing slowed growth rates and death. MSX, or Haplosporidium nelsoni, also leads to oyster death, but can affect oysters of all ages. Both diseases are contracted between May and October, and their prevalence can be affected by water temperature and salinity.

Overcoming the effects of Dermo and MSX has posed a challenge to oyster restoration. It is estimated that by age three, 80 percent or more of a single oyster year class in a high disease area (like the Virginia portion of the Bay) will die due to disease.

Habitat loss
Over the past century, the watershed has experienced a change in land use, as urban, suburban and agricultural areas have replaced forested lands. This has increased the amount of nutrients and sediment entering our rivers and streams and contributed to the poor water quality that affects aquatic life. Excess nutrients, for instance, fuel the growth of algae blooms that create low-oxygen “dead zones” that hinder the development of oyster larvae; sediment can suffocate oysters and other shellfish. Stress related to poor water quality can make oysters more susceptible to disease.

How are oysters being managed and restored?

In 2005, the Chesapeake Bay Program adopted the 2004 Chesapeake Bay Oyster Management Plan. This plan has four components, including managing oyster harvest, establishing oyster sanctuaries, overcoming the effects of disease and restoring reefs with hatchery-raised seed.

In 2010, Bay Program partners embarked on a tributary-based restoration strategy that will build seed and monitor reefs in several Maryland and Virginia waterways.

Managing oyster harvest
Managing oyster harvest can ensure the region’s oyster industry remains sustainable. This requires estimating the amount of oysters that can be taken from the Bay without compromising restoration efforts or population size. In Maryland, harvest is managed by the Oyster Advisory Commission; in Virginia, it is managed by the Marine Resources Commission.

Establishing oyster sanctuaries
Oyster sanctuaries are underwater reefs from which shellfish harvesting is prohibited. When a reef is designated a sanctuary, it is often improved by scientists who clean off excess sediment or add shells or other materials for new spat to settle on. Restoring reefs and protecting them from harvest has the potential to increase populations of spawning adult oysters and, in turn, larval production in the Bay.

In the short term, the success of sanctuaries will be limited by disease and poor water quality. But sanctuaries will make important contributions to restoration if disease resistance evolves in wild oysters over time and is supported by management practices.

Overcoming disease
Maryland and Virginia must confront different challenges when it comes to oyster disease. While the prevalence of disease in Maryland waters is dependent on weather conditions, oysters in the warmer, saltier waters of Virginia are faced with constant disease pressure. But research from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has found that oysters subject to high disease pressure are developing disease resistance, and efforts are underway to breed greater distance resistance in native oyster strains.

Restoring oyster reefs
In 2010, Bay Program partners embarked on a tributary-based restoration strategy that will build seed and monitor reefs in several Maryland and Virginia waterways. Harris Creek, a Choptank River tributary located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was the first site selected for this restoration effort. In February 2014, the Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup reported that reef construction and seeding for about half of Harris Creek’s 377 targeted acres were complete.
About TOGA (Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association)
[From the website: https://www.oystergardener.org]

Leading the effort to educate the public and expand the understanding of the Virginia oyster industry is the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association (TOGA).

The Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association (TOGA) is a non-profit organization established in 1997 to promote the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries through oyster cultivation and by other means, and as a way of enjoying Virginia oysters. Being filter feeders, oysters remove bacteria and sediments, making the local environment cleaner habitats for marine life, and the improved water quality encourages sea grass growth, which creates better habits for fish. Our main goal is to educate interested citizens of all ages in oyster aquaculture methods. We accomplish this in a number of ways, such as participating in over 25 educational outreach events each year. Thousands of adults and young students have been introduced by TOGA to the benefits of growing your own oysters and, most importantly, to the awareness of the importance of helping to improve the ecology of the Bay. We teach how to evaluate potential sites for growing oysters (water quality, salinity, turbidity, etc.); how to build various types of oyster floats (Taylor, flip, Australian, bottom, Delano); where and when to obtain spat (oyster seed) and supplies; and the care and maintenance of oysters at all stages. Our current active membership is over 600, geographically spanning from the James to the Patuxent Rivers and their tributaries.

Upon recognizing that we needed “experts” to help oyster gardeners evaluate conditions at their growing location, assist in identifying predators, help locate needed materials and supplies, and participate in our outreach events, we initiated a biennial Master Oyster Gardeners (MOG) Course. From eight courses, we have graduated over 100 MOGs who volunteer for a minimum of 50 hours of service to TOGA. The course covers oyster biology, oyster reef ecology, shellfish diseases, breeding programs, hatchery operation and seed production, growing sites and structures, recognition of predators, and governmental regulations. The course is taught by faculty and staff from VIMS, personnel from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and representatives of the Virginia Health Department.

Some of the “other means” we promote the health of the Bay area to conduct various research studies of different strains of oysters in varying salinity and other conditions; contribute to a Fellowship Endowment with the VIMS Foundation to support graduate students researching shellfish and, more broadly, the ecological restoration of the Chesapeake Bay; host five events per year at which we present topics of current interest by experts in the field of marine biology as well as our own members; publish three newsletters per year containing educational articles, results of research projects, and upcoming events; maintain one of the most current and oyster-gardener-oriented websites available to the public; and help write, publish and maintain several publications on raising oysters.

Oyster farming became the primary source of Virginia oysters several years ago. Growing your own oysters is good for the Bay; they are good to eat and fun to rise. If you would like to learn more about TOGA, please visit our website at (www.oystergardener.org), come to a board meeting (dates and times posted on the website), or call/write our Mike Todd at  mtodd.nc@gmail.com.

Stratford Hall is proud to be partner with the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association (TOGA) at the annual Wine and Oyster Festival held September 19-20, 2015 on the grounds of historic Stratford Hall.


March 21, 2015
10:00 am - 12:30 pm
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