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Mapping the Cultural Influence of Oysters

Documenting the cultural importance of oysters could be a way to understand people’s attitudes today and gauge how future regulations could may communities.

Oysters. ©Stephanie Chavez/VASG

Oysters. ©Stephanie Chavez/VASG

By Katharine Sucher, Staff Writer

Amy Freitag wants to bring some culture to oyster management in Maryland and Virginia.

Freitag, an ecosystem-based fisheries management fellow with Virginia Sea Grant and NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, is gathering all of the data that affects oyster management to help managers take a more ecosystem-wide approach. So far, she’s been learning what concerns managers, researchers, and watermen about oysters. She’s identifying data sources on water quality, oyster reefs, and oyster health that could help address their concerns, but one element is missing from the data—people.

Oysters have a cultural importance to communities along the Rappahannock River in Virginia. This summer, Freitag identified oyster’s cultural influence by mapping where businesses and festivals have the words “oyster” or “Rappahannock” in their names.

Amy Freitag. ©VASG

Amy Freitag. ©VASG

“It’s a way to put human dimensions of oysters on the map,” Freitag explains.

Mapping these human dimensions is important, because people play an important role in how successful regulations work. After all, regulations and resource managers don’t regulate oysters—they regulate people.

Documenting cultural importance could be a way to understand people’s attitudes today and gauge how future regulations could affect communities.

“You could look at past records and say, ‘We’ve made these decisions, now are the number of businesses named after the water going up or down? Is Tappahannock losing its waterfront identity if a working waterfront closes?’” says Freitag.

So far, she’s found that not all towns on the Rappahannock name their businesses the same way.

“There will be little pockets of ‘oyster this’ or ‘oyster that’ or ‘Rappahannock this or that,’ but not all cities on the Rappahannock have a lot of Rappahannock stuff,” Freitag says. “So then you can start to ask, ‘What about the ones that don’t? Do they not have this identity that’s tied to the river? Why?’”

On the other hand, towns like Tappahannock, VA, seem to have a strong cultural tie to the water. Looking at businesses named after the Rappahannock, Freitag says, “it’s not just kayaking businesses or seafood businesses, it’s Rappahannock Concrete or a lot of development homeowner associations.”

Freitag also found communities with strong cultural ties to oysters in towns like Urbanna, VA, where oyster-harvesting grounds have been closed since the 1960s. Despite the half-a-century closure, the town is hosting its 58th annual Urbanna Oyster Festival this November. The event is expected to attract more than 40,000 visitors per day, and the festival’s official website states “Urbanna is synonymous with Chesapeake Bay oysters.”

Festival Coordinator Pamela Simon says this association comes down to one thing—“tradition.” And this doesn’t just apply to the weeks surrounding the oyster festival. Simon says oysters remain central to Urbanna’s identity year-round. The town is currently using grant funding to restore oyster reefs in Urbanna Creek. One day, the area hopes to reopen oyster-harvesting grounds. Simon sees a need to continue drawing attention to the importance of oysters.

“It’s definitely very important that the government—both local and state—be aware of what’s happening in Urbanna,” Simon says.

But keeping aware of a town’s culture can prove to be difficult for decision-makers. Freitag explains the challenge, saying, “A lot of the problem is that [culture] comes from family traditions, and it’s not visible and it’s not documented and it’s easy to forget.”

Freitag’s map could be one way of documenting culture and increasing decision-maker’s awareness of the importance of oysters to a town’s identity.

During her fellowship, Freitag will also update more traditional data, including water quality, oyster health, and reef locations, and add these data to mapping tools. But she believes documenting cultural data “will help draw those lines between town planning and the Bay.”