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Oyster farming is an aquaculture (or mariculture) practice in which oysters are raised for human consumption. Oyster farming most likely developed in tandem with pearl farming, a similar practice in which oysters are farmed for the purpose of developing pearls. It was practiced by the ancient Romans as early as the 1st century BC on the Italian peninsula and later in Britain for export to Rome. The French oyster industry has relied on aquacultured oysters since the late 18th century.
Commonly farmed food oysters include the Eastern oyster Crassostrea virginica, the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas, Belon oyster Ostrea edulis, the Sydney rock oyster Saccostrea glomerata, and the Southern mud oyster Ostrea angasi.
Oysters naturally grow in estuarine bodies of brackish water. When farmed, the temperature and salinity of the water are controlled (or at least monitored), so as to induce spawning and fertilization, as well as to speed the rate of maturation – which can take several years.
Three methods of cultivation are commonly used. In each case oysters are cultivated to the size of "spat," the point at which they attach themselves to a substrate. The substrate is known as a "culch" or "cultch". The loose spat may be allowed to mature further to form "seed" oysters with small shells. In either case (spat or seed stage), they are then set out to mature. The maturation technique is where the cultivation method choice is made.
In one method the spat or seed oysters are distributed over existing oyster beds and left to mature naturally. Such oysters will then be collected using the methods for fishing wild oysters, such as dredging.
In the second method the spat or seed may be put in racks, bags, or cages (or they may be glued in threes to vertical ropes) which are held above the bottom. Oysters cultivated in this manner may be harvested by lifting the bags or racks to the surface and removing mature oysters, or simply retrieving the larger oysters when the enclosure is exposed at low tide. The latter method may avoid losses to some predators, but is more expensive.
In the third method the spat or seed are placed in a culch within an artificial maturation tank. The maturation tank may be fed with water that has been especially prepared for the purpose of accelerating the growth rate of the oysters. In particular the temperature and salinity of the water may be altered somewhat from nearby ocean water. The carbonate minerals calcite and aragonite in the water may help oysters develop their shells faster and may also be included in the water processing prior to introduction to the tanks. This latter cultivation technique may be the least susceptible to predators and poaching, but is the most expensive to build and to operate. The Pacific oyster C. gigas is the species most commonly used with this type of farming.
Since 1977, several boat builders in Brittany have built specialized amphibious vehicles for use in the area's mussel and oyster farming industries. The boats are made of aluminium, are relatively flat-bottomed, and have three, four, or six wheels, depending on the size of the boat. When the tide is out the boats can run on the tidal flats using their wheels. When the tide is in, they use a propeller to move themselves through the water. Oyster farmers in Jersey make use of similar boats. Currently, Constructions Maritimes du Vivier Amphibie has a range of models.
Oyster culture using tiles as culch. Taken from The Illustrated London News 1881
Oyster farm on Prince Edward Island Canada
Oyster boat in the harbour at Gorey, Jersey
Flat bottomed oyster-boat with oyster-bags in Chaillevette, France, 2013
The farming of oysters and other shellfish is relatively benign or even restorative environmentally, and holds promise for relieving pressure on land-based protein sources. Restoration of oyster populations are encouraged for the ecosystem services they provide, including water quality maintenance, shoreline protection and sediment stabilization, nutrient cycling and sequestration, and habitat for other organisms. A native Olympia oyster restoration project is taking place in Liberty Bay, Washington, and numerous oyster restoration projects are underway in the Chesapeake Bay. In the U.S., Delaware is the only East Coast state without oyster aquaculture, but making aquaculture a state-controlled industry of leasing water by the acre for commercial harvesting of shellfish is being considered. Supporters of Delaware's legislation to allow aquaculture cite revenue, job creation, and nutrient cycling benefits. It is estimated that one acre can produce nearly 750,000 oysters, which could filter between 15 to 40 million gallons of water daily.
Pathogens that can affect either farmed C. virginica or C. gigas oysters include Perkinsus marinus (Dermo) and Haplosporidium nelsoni (MSX). However, C. viginicus are much more susceptible to Dermo or MSX infections than are the C. gigas species of oyster. Pathogens of O. edulis oysters include Marteilia refringens and Bonamia ostreae. In the north Atlantic Ocean, oyster crabs may live in an endosymbiotic commensal relationship within a host oyster. Since oyster crabs are considered a food delicacy they may not be removed from young farmed oysters, as they can themselves be harvested for sale.
Nineteenth century shallow draft sailboats designed primarily for oystering include:
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