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one inch to three inches in length, and, when planted in the best feeding grounds, grow in a year to four or five inches, when they are regarded as marketable.
The best planting grounds, all things considered, are found in Tangiers Sound, a portion of the bay opposite the county of Dorchester, and of Somerset, in Maryland, and marked off from the bay proper by a chain of islands dropped from the Dorchester Hook to Crisfield, the present terminus of the Delaware railroad. Here the water is comparatively shallow, and the sound is so completely shielded by islands on one side, and the mainland on the other, as to be at all times tranquil. The business of planting, therefore, may be carried on without interruption, and the plants are not liable to be covered by sand.
Good planting grounds are valuable, and are seldom sold; but sometimes they are leased at rates ranging from $50 to $400 annually per acre. Sales of lots covered by three to seven feet of water have been made at upward of $1,000 per acre; and the most desirable grounds are valued at rates above these figures, and pay an interest of more than twenty per cent. on that valuation.
There are other excellent planting grounds superior even, in some respects, to those of Tangiers, but they are open to the objection of loss from shifting sands, so destructive to the plants. On the Tangiers bottoms exists a rank vegetable growth called sea-moss, in which the oysters become securely imbedded, and which protects the spawn and the young oysters until their shells become sufficiently hard to afford protection from the numerous anquatic foes that prey upon them.
The boundaries of the planting lots are determined from stakes or small evergreen trees, firmly secured in the mud at the corners. These fragile corner-marks are strictly respected by the neighbors, and a case of trespass rarely occurs.
The plants are allowed to remain from three to six months, never exceeding a year. The tonging season commences in September and continues through the following April, it being a rule with the fishers to close operations before May; as, according to their belief, oysters are unfit for use in any month that is not spelled with the letter R. The breeding season occupies the four months from May to August inclusive, and the oysters are then necessarily not in good condition for use. Consequently those engaged in the business during the other part of the year employ their boats in freighting fruits and vegetables, or turn their attention to trucking, particularly to the cultivation of sweet potatoes and melons, for which the islands and high mainlands are peculiarly adapted.
Quality. There is a great difference in the quality of oysters of the same size and age. Locality has its influence to such a degree that most natural beds and all planting grounds produce oysters of different flavors. An experienced oyster fisher can, at sight, generally tell the locality from which the oyster was taken; and the epicure, accustomed to the different flavors, can by taste designate the bed on which the oyster was grown and fatted.
The oysters of Tangiers are excelled in delicious flavor by those at the mouth of the Cherrystone River, on the coast, and by those in Lynnhaven Bay on the west side, at the mouth of the James and the Nansemond Rivers. The Cherrystones deservedly hold the first rank, but are practi,cally little known beyond their own neighborhood, as the natural beds are of small extent and their production limited. There are, however, fine feeding grounds in the vicinity of Cherrystone, and all oysters planted there become of superior quality, and are sold abroad as Cherrystones. The true Cherrystone, in fine condition, retains its shape when cooked, (which is that of a cherry seed,) and cuts as finely as a tender sirloin.
Propagation.—The art of breeding the oyster crop, by artificial means, is still in a primitive state in this country. In France, where labor is cheap and abundant, the cultivation of the oyster crop has been carried to the same perfection that has been attained in pisciculture. There the beds are as methodically marked out as for a flower garden, and a close calculation is made as to the greatest profitable produce from a given number of plants. As a portion of the crop becomes sufficiently matured for market, it is gathered, and other plants are at once put in the place.
In the Chesapeake the plants are shoveled from the deck of the vessel as she is towed slowly over the space marked out, and the quantity is consequently indefinite. The design is, however, to cover the bottom with a single layer of the plants. The water on artificial beds varies in depth from two to twelve feet, three to four feet being most desirable, as the beds may then be inspected from the surface, when the water is clear and tranquil. Such a depth, too, is most favorable for forking and tonging, and the entire crop may be gathered at one time.
Until a comparatively recent period the oyster was regarded as hermaphrodite, but the sexes are so marked that those familiar with them can readily distipguish them at sight, the females being in excess of the males. During the breeding season the oyster is said to be in the milk," which term is applied to the ova, or spawn. The spawn is discharged in minute, viscid balls, of such gravity that they float midway between surface and bottom in the water, and are there met by the sperm of the male, which is discharged at the same time. Fertilization is thus effected in the water, and the ova adhere to the first bard or rough substance with which they come in contact, and at once begin to assume shape, and to exhibit indications of life. The spat at first appears to belong to the vegetable rather than to the animal kingdom; but, as it continues to grow in size, the animal assumes a more vigorous and decided character. In a few weeks it is capable of a feeble, independent motion that gradually increases until the shells are perfectly formed, when it attains the power to open and close them.
The object to which the floating spawn is most likely to fasten is the shell' of another old oyster, and this accounts for the fact that, while single oysters only are found in the artificial beds, they exist in clusters in the natural beds (Figure 7.)
The spawn gradually changes its rotund shape, and spreads upon the substance to which it adheres, forming a white spot that in time assumes the appearance of a thin, flat shell, though it remains soft and friable. It is now called a spat, and is covered by a delicate skin that grows thicker and harder until it becomes a shell. The spat is much sought after by fishes, crabs, and turtles, and numbers are thus destroyed. The shell begins to harden when the spat attains half an inch to an inch in diameter, and thickens with the growth of the oyster. At one year old it is an inch to an inch and a half in diameter, and its shell is susliciently hard to place it out of danger from most of its enemies. It may now be used as a plant, though greater size and more age are desirable for stocking artificial beds.
Although ranked by naturalists in a very low scale of animal existence, the oyster is not without certain physical power, and sufficient instinct for self-preservation under ordinary circumstances, as illustrated in instances where the floating spawn has attached to the inside of the shell of an old oyster while open for feeding. Were the spat allowed to remain there, it would soon so increase in size as to cause serious incou