John Iber can recall some of those golden days of his youth when his grandfather, George, would lead him down from his Baltimore home to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to rake for oysters and blue crabs. “The best part was always coming home,” he says. “My grandmother and dad would see what we had with us and know we’d be eating well that night!”
Now, John uses his grandfather’s lessons to rake for oysters at New Hampshire’s Great Bay. He’s been coming down to Adam’s Point in Durham since 1973 to rake with friends, tell stories and toss the shells back into the bay.
While the camaraderie is still strong, Great Bay and its oysters aren’t what they used to be…
When John came to the Granite State in 1972 to study at the University of New Hampshire, it didn’t take him long to find his favorite harvesting spot in Great Bay. In this estuary that connects five rivers with the Gulf of Maine, the Abenaki Indians chose the same spot for its abundant shellfish.
“By foot, I could come down here and gather a bushel of oysters in an hour,” remarks John as he braves the frigid water on a raw January afternoon. “Nowadays you can spend hours out here and barely get a quarter bushel.” The yield is 90 to 95 percent less than what he’d pull up with his homemade rakes back while he was earning his degree.
Upgrading local sewage treatment facilities, educating residents about proper fertilization techniques and controlling runoff into the Bay are just a few ways John feels can help oysters and other inhabitants of the estuary to make a comeback. Adhering to more restrictive harvesting laws is another. In 2010, harvesters were required to reduce their daily haul from a bushel to 1/2 bushel - a change John supports. "It's just smart," he says. "And with the way things are, you're lucky to get a 1/2 bushel anyway."
John also supports The Nature Conservancy’s oyster restoration projects, both locally and across the country. “I strongly believe in what you’re doing here,” he says. “I saw the total collapse of the Chesapeake four to five years ago. Now it’s much cleaner. I don’t think we’ve hit the bottom here in Great Bay. Not yet. I’m hopeful that we’ll see things turn around in time.”
Over the years John has taken a few folks out into Great Bay to try their hand at harvesting. He still coaxes his father out into the cold water a few days before each Christmas. They watch the seals play while gathering oysters for the holiday meal (usually taking the form of oyster stuffing).
Unlike John, Grandpa George was never much of a fan of raw oysters. “He’d stew them, jar them for later or make fried oysters,” reflects John. From his grandmother John learned to prepare oysters nearly every which way but sideways, many of which he still cooks for his family today (try his Oysters Rockefeller). “Eating is what ties our generations together. Sometimes food is the only thing that three generations can agree on!”
Megan writes and designs for the New Hampshire Chapter and has been with the Conservancy for 10 years.