The town of Cape May was once filled with large heaps of shells bleached white by the sun and its port was lined with long buildings facing the water. Oysters once streamed out of here: they were collected in barrels, loaded onto trucks and dispatched to Philadelphia. The shells are all that remain of the past glory of Delaware Bay, sheltered by the slender peninsula ending at Cape May, where Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet.
In Colonial Philadelphia the sellers used to clatter up and down the streets, which were often paved with shells; the oysters were eaten raw, in stew, preserved in brine or fried and served with chicken salad. Back then, places selling oysters were as common as present-day pizzerias.
Overfishing, pollution, increased water temperatures and parasitic diseases are responsible for the crisis which began during the Great Depression and saw oysters decrease in both number and size. While the estuary was home to 1,400 boats with 2,300 men in 1879, there are now fewer than 50 boats and 150 men involved in cultivating and gathering oysters. Some studies maintain that the oyster farms in the upper bay were already destroyed during the Second World War due to sailing boats being replaced by motor boats. But today the bay is cleaner, partly due to environmental programs implemented by the three states and partly due to the decline of heavy industry in Philadelphia. These reasons encourage optimism that local oysters can once again flourish in their habitat.
The Cape May Salt Oyster has become a Slow Food Presidium to maintain a low environmental-impact system of cultivation tried and tested in France.
Atlantic Capes Fisheries
James Tweed, Aquaculture/Husbandry Manager
Cape May, NJ
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