Oysters Olé (and Notes on Native American Sustainability Practices)
I went in a different direction, flavor-wise, with these oysters (in a big way). With summer in full swing, I wanted to combine the briny freshness of oysters with cherry tomatoes in the height of their season, plus fresh herbs with jalapeño and lime to achieve a real celebration for the palate. I absolutely cannot wait to make this colorful, flavorful plate for friends as a snack or appetizer.
But more than being healthy (oysters are loaded with zinc and other multivitamins and minerals), and pleasing to see and eat (which is important, no mistake!) this Mexican twist of a recipe features an ingredient I’m very excited about from a sustainability perspective: oysters. I recently described the sustainability angle of the content here to my luminous friend Angela, and she mentioned immediately that oysters are among the most sustainable seafood. Even the most cursory Google search reveals that she’s correct.When it comes to choosing a sustainable food at the fish counter, the oyster is a safe bet. Click To Tweet
Why? In brief (and there are always exceptions that prove the rule, so to speak):
- They are cultivated with comparatively low impact on their environment. In some cases, oysters help improve it. They do not feed on fish meal from wild-capture fisheries, for example, instead filter-feeding on tiny particles, plankton, and organic matter found in the water column like tiny natural clarifiers.
- While farmed seafood as a broader category is commonly vilified, farmed oysters have the advantage of being very traceable. Each bag is required by law to have a tag that identifies its location of harvest (and harvest date) plus the grower and/or distributor.
- Farmed oysters can also be cultivated without added chemicals or antibiotics, which can be harmful to the surrounding environment.
My favorite recent articles on oyster sustainability was a Pacific Standard piece titled Can Native American Oyster Practices Rejuvenate the Chesapeake Bay? Given the paleo origins of this blog, is it a surprise that we’re talking about the sustainability tactics of ancient cultures? The article’s author details how “an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution — including biologists, resource managers, archaeologists, anthropologists, even a paleontologist” (heyo!) are researching the oyster sustainability practices of Native Americans, and how those practices may positively impact waters depleted by over-fishing, pollution, and sea-level rise. So, what did the Native Americans do right, despite being impacted by some of the same issues (climate change, and increasing populations)?
- Tribes would “vary their resources, spending certain parts of the year alternately on agriculture, or gathering wild plants, or deer-hunting”. This resulted in a a kind of organic rotation pattern that reduced pressure on any one resource, just as how farmers today rotate their crops and pastureland. Different from our modern whatever-I-want-whenever-I-want mentality toward food.
- Native populations also hand-fished in shallow waters. That’s a stark contrast to today’s damaging practice of dredging (dragging a heavy metal net behind a fishing boat along the ocean floor to collect any number of bottom-dwelling specimens). The hypothesis is that if deep-water oyster populations were left alone, they would re-generate unhunted and produce at a much more prolific rate than they do in current conditions.
- By using these two strategies (rotational harvesting, and only in shallow water) in tandem, tribal populations allowed oyster populations not only to survive but thrive.
These techniques haven’t been tested, and they would likely result in scarcity and rising prices in the short-term. But the fate of these tasty little bivalves is a microcosm of the larger implications of sustainability: would we prefer many oysters for a short period of time, or fewer oysters for perpetuity?
Enjoy this simple recipe featuring my favorite sustainable seafood:
- 1½ tbsp olive oil
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- ½ tsp freshly-ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp minced Mexican oregano, plus more for garnish
- 10 oysters, on the half shell
- 1 jalapeño, sliced into thin rounds
- Cherry tomatoes, for serving
- Cilantro, for garnish
- Red pepper flakes, for garnish
- Lime wedges, for serving
- Heat the olive oil and garlic uncovered in a small sauce pot over medium-low heat. Cook until garlic the is golden, 4–6 minutes, then remove from the heat. Stir in minced oregano and pepper.
- Drizzle spoonfuls of the garlic/pepper/herb oil over oysters, and sprinkle with the slices of jalapeño pepper.
- Serve nestled among cherry tomatoes, and garnished with additional oregano plus cilantro, red pepper flakes and a squeeze of fresh lime juice if desired.