Remember when you were a little kid and your mom let you bring home a bucket of sea creatures you’d collected on a hot summer day, and you put them in the cool shade of the back porch to keep them safe, and the next morning when you went out to throw a party for your new pets, it turned into a funeral? You’d think those life lessons would stick with us all, but we still get asked by well meaning customers, “If I want them to last, I should store them in a bucket of water right?” Sometimes my response is a little too loud “NOOOOOOO – NEVER STORE BIVALVES IN ANY KIND OF STANDING WATER.” Not freshwater, not seawater – and NO shellfish: not mussels, not oysters, not clams, not seasnails, not limpids, not crabs, not lobsters, not any live creature (unless you’re itching to relive some poignant childhood moments — that burial ode to the urchin you can still almost remember).
A bucket of water will not sustain life for very long at all. Even with no visible creatures, it will quickly rot. Seawater is especially full of creatures that are processing away (for some great pictures of the plethora of plankton, in just an eyedropper full of water, see the previous post). And freshwater can have its own host of the wrong kind of bacteria, that flourish in the right conditions.
Bivalves placed in even a small amount of standing water will open, consume all available oxygen, and die. Think about it. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water in a SINGLE day. Maybe if you had a 50 gallon drum of very fresh seawater, with ONE oyster inside, your pet may survive one day — but don’t count on it. The amazing thing is, that same oyster can survive up to two weeks out of water. Out of water, oysters shut down and their metabolism slows to a crawl. Mussels are not nearly as hardy, and need to be refrigerated and eaten within a day or two. But even mussels should not be placed in standing water for that day or two. It’s like putting a pillow over their little lips and suffocating them – murderous.
In caring for your freshly bought bivalves your goal is to keep them alive as long as possible. A live oyster will clamp shut when tapped, never eat a dead oyster on the half shell. Store them in a cool place 40-45 F is ideal. Avoid direct contact with gelpacks (freezing them will kill them). A clean damp cloth draped over them will help them from getting dried out under refrigeration. In Brittany, France they still transport oysters wrapped in kelp to keep them insulated and moist. As long as they’re alive when you shuck them, they’re good to eat.
Take good care of them and they will delight your palate.
After 3 years of spring mostly in the tropics – where you either have the long season of the short rains, or the short season of the long rains – the magic of this spring is amplified for us. The novelty of winter never quite wore off, and spring feels like it has come too fast, but the signs of spring are clear. The kelp is growing at a very rapid pace. Fishermen have come out of hibernation and lines are forming at the GearShed cashier (our local ship chandler and sporting specialists). The shorebirds are arriving just in time for the shorebird festival. And last week we discovered a whole new way to witness the arrival of spring – Plankton! The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve (KBRR) held an algae workshop. It’s one of those citizen science efforts that gets us very excited. We had a full family day of phytoplankton sampling training last Friday, under the expert tutelage of Catie Bursch, KBRR Marine Educator and via phone Jeff Patternoster with NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network. Our training included a visit to Homer Harbor to do a plankton tow, and an afternoon in the lab, where we learned to identify the very organisms that feed our oysters (and yes sometimes wreak havoc with their edibility).
It’s fascinating that only weeks ago we could clearly see the sea floor under our docks, the water was a crystal clear lense, like a polynesian lagoon. Now, with just a little bit more sunlight (~10 minutes more each day right now), and a 2-3 degree increase in water temperature, and look what’s floating beneath our very feet! A delicious oyster buffet of diatoms and dinoflagellates. We’re excited to see the feed has arrived! Soup’s on! Our little mollusks will come out of their dormant state to feast on this breakfast of champions and grow to fill our plates and yours. But ours is not just the joy of farmers seeing a payoff of extremely hard work in the not too distant future, but this soupy green nutritious mix is breathtakingly beautiful under the microscope. We are all thoroughly and completely captivated. And we’ll be checking frequently now that we know how, keeping a sharp eye out for the evil Alexandrium – the oysters don’t seem to mind it, but it’s the nasty bugger that can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) in humans. We test for PSP weekly in the summer, monthly in the winter, and now we’ll be watching for its main perpetrator too.