Zoom fatigue, the term used to describe the weariness, worry and burnout associated with virtual communications platform overuse, is real. As a freelance writer, I don’t have to endure the endless barrage of virtual meeting requests folks with full-time employers are subjected to during this 21st century pandemic. Therefore, I still tend to seek out opportunities to drop in virtually on talks that might not have been available to me in the before-times.

In late October, for example, I participated in a Zoom meeting sponsored by the Maine Conservation Voters on The Basin Oyster Project. This is a collaborative effort to build a sustainable oyster reef in a deep-water tidal inlet of the New Meadows River near Phippsburg. This online event was one in an ongoing series of environmentally focused talks ranging from tribal sovereignty and banning aerial herbicides to the forgotten history of African Americans in Castine and properly siting solar farms throughout Maine. These sessions are open to the public and are recorded and stored on YouTube. 

The Basin Oyster Project was conceived in 2017 by The Nature Conservancy, which owns coastal property near the Basin and has also supported similar reef restoration projects along the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, in the Pensacola East Bay in Florida, off Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge, and Nags Head Woods Preserve in North Carolina, in 10 Chesapeake Bay tributaries in Maryland, and in Great Bay in New Hampshire.

Wild oysters reefs existed for thousands of years along the Maine coast. They provided Indigenous people with food and building materials. They also provided ecological benefits by improving water quality (oysters are filter feeders), fostering ecosystem biodiversity and providing coastal storm surge protection.

“Oyster reefs depend on dead shells and other living oysters to continue building that habitat. If you remove the shells from the habitat, you destroy it,” said Caitlin Cleaver, Basin Oyster Project collaborator and director of the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area. She explained to folks watching the session that oyster reefs here in Maine and all along the U.S. Atlantic coastline have been decimated since the early 1900s by pollution, overharvesting, invasive species and climate-driven changes in hydrology.

The Basin Oyster Project aims to put shells back into the water as well as living oysters to live on top of them in order to kick-start all the beneficial ecosystem services offered by shellfish reefs. No one has yet tried oyster reef restoration this far north.

Step one when you make oysters – shucking. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In New York Harbor, the wildly successful Billion Oyster Project has installed 14 reefs with the help of 10,000 volunteers, 100 city schools and 75 restaurant partners; these last have funneled 1.5 million pounds of recycled spent shells into the harbor. Similarly, the Basin Oyster Project draws support from across sectors of the local community, including commercial oyster farmers, town conservation commissions, environmental research organizations and residents. Together, the group is highlighting the interplay of oyster farming, wild shellfish habitat restoration and the coastal economy. In addition to establishing an oyster reef, the group wants to create an integrated social-scientific model for coastal restoration that could be replicated up and down the coast.

From 2017-19, researchers with The Nature Conservancy set oyster spat (babies) on both tile and shells and placed them, unprotected by any supporting infrastructure, into the basin. The results of those initial settlements were positive, said Dot Kelly, who serves on the Phippsburg Conservation Committee, the body that recently took a leadership role in the Basin Oyster Project. That work proved oysters were viable in the Basin. But unprotected from predatory green crabs, the yield of mature oysters compared to the amount of spat set was very low.

In 2020, Kelly and about 30 collaborators started setting baby oysters on shell and growing them in the Basin in floating bags like those commercial oyster farmers use. The bags will protect them until they are larger and less susceptible to green crabs. Marissa McMahan, a marine biologist who works for Manomet, a coastal ecology nonprofit with offices in Brunswick, will be monitoring green crab population, biodiversity parameters and water quality before, during and after the reef is built to assess the benefits of the reef. Cleaver and a team of scuba divers have been under the water to map out how the natural physical substrate will eventually support reef development, which the team hopes will happen sometime in 2022.

What can you do to support this effort? Effective environmental conservation efforts like the Basin Oyster Project require widespread community buy-in, Cleaver said. So first, buy as many farmed Maine oysters as possible to support the oyster industry. The more oysters you eat, the more oysters the farmers will grow, and the better the Gulf of Maine water quality will be able to support wild oyster reefs. And sign up for the Basin Oyster Project newsletter to track its progress.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige tops oysters with an herb-bread crumb mix to prep Oysters Rockefeller. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine Oysters Rockefeller

Circa 1889, New Orleans restaurateur Jules Alciatore developed this recipe because there was a shortage of escargot but an abundance of Gulf of Mexico oysters. He named the rich, buttery appetizer after America’s wealthiest man at the time, John D. Rockefeller. Alciatore never disclosed his exact recipe, but the general ingredients are oysters on the half-shell, herbs, breadcrumbs and butter. This is my rendition, which I make when I find larger, deeply cupped Maine oysters. To help steady the opened oysters in the pan, I use the removed top shells as balancing plates. These cooked oysters make a festive, impressive appetizer that can be prepped in advance, refrigerated for several hours, and cooked in a very hot oven right before serving.

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer

1/4 cup parsley leaves
1/4 cup arugula
1/4 cup baby spinach
2 tablespoons tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons fennel fronds
2 lemons
4 tablespoons salted butter
1/4 cup small-diced fennel
1/4 cup small-diced shallot
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cups panko breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon Maine sea salt
24 large Maine oysters on the half shell

Place parsley, arugula, spinach, tarragon and fennel fronds on a large cutting board. Use a large, sharp knife to mince them well. You should end up with about 1/4 cup minced herbs. Zest the lemons. Combine the zest with the herbs and set aside. Cut the lemons into wedges and set aside.

In a medium skillet over low heat, melt the butter. Add diced fennel and shallot, cook slowly until translucent, 6-7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add the wine, increase the heat to medium and cook until half of the wine has evaporated, 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat. Stir in the breadcrumbs and salt. Stir in herb mixture.

Arrange the oysters on the half-shell on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Top each oyster with a heaping teaspoon of the herbed bread crumb mixture. At this point, you can refrigerate the prepared oysters for up to 4 hours.

Twenty minutes before you want to serve the oysters, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. When the oven is hot, slide the baking tray into the oven. Cook until the topping is golden brown and the juices are bubbling, 10-12 minutes. Oysters are fully cooked when they reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees F. You can use an instant read thermometer to be sure.

Serve the oysters piping hot with reserved lemon wedges.


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