Oysters were incorporated into the diets of coastal Indigenous Peoples including those of the northwest coast (including Twana of Puget Sound, Coast Salish, Nootka [Nuu-chah-nulth] and Tlingit) and the northeast coast (including Micmac [Mi'kmaq] of Nova Scotia, Penobscot, Iroquois and coastal Algonquian such as Wampanoag) [1-11]. The Attawapiskat (Cree) occasionally ate oysters in small numbers . The Algonquian called oysters e’sis, a common name used for most bivalves .
Northwest coast cultures tended to avoid oysters in summer due to risk of shellfish poisoning, but on the east coast, Micmac often collected between May and September [14, 15]. The Micmac are also reported to have staved off hunger with oysters found in abundance during winter and spring when food stores were low . The Wampanoag living at Grey Head consumed oysters gathered from Manemsha pond at their yearly Cranberry Festival .
Oysters were collected from the beach with digging sticks and bark baskets [4, 15]. The Nootka of Vancouver Island ate either boiled or steamed oysters . The Iroquois are reported to have boiled oysters for many hours to make them soft, similar to how they prepared mussels . The Wampanoag would occasionally eat oysters raw . The Micmac and Penobscot dried oysters in the sun or over a smoky fire and stored them in boxes for winter [6, 15]. The Micmac used ground oyster shells to polish bows .
Eastern oysters were reported to have been an abundant and important shellfish for the Micmac (Mi'kmaq) of Richibucto and Wampanoag. The Wampanoag stored large numbers for winter. Although in the past they were abundant at Manemsha Pond, Grey Head, and Cape Cod, by the 1950s the eastern oysters became rare and difficult to find [7, 17].
Olympia oysters were found on the west coast of Puget Sound and collected regularly by the Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) of Vancouver Island and Coast Salish [9, 11, 16, 18, 19]. The Manhousat occasionally gathered Olympia oysters from rocks along beaches [20, 21]. The Manhousat usually steamed or boiled the oysters; the resulting broth could be drunk as a tea thought to enhance male potency . The Coast Salish barbecued or steamed Olympia oysters in a pit .
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Oysters have quite broad ranges and occupy shallow estuaries. In North America, oysters include two species of true oysters: the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), occurring along the Atlantic coast, from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, but declining in abundance since early 1900s, and the Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida), occurring along the Pacific coast and listed as of special concern according to COSEWIC. Oysters are called huîtres in French.
In oysters, unlike in clams, cockles, and mussels, the two valves are not the same shape, one being flat, elongated, and more triangular, and the other being cupped and rounded, and adductor muscles are centrally attached to each valve. Their shell is thick and solid, and has a creamy-white exterior with rough purple or brown concentric sculpturing and a glossy white interior. The eastern oyster can grow as large as 35 cm, while the Olympia oyster is smaller than 10 cm.
Oysters prefer hard substrate, like rock or shell, to attach to and will not settle on muddy bottoms. Unlike mussels, oysters do not use attachment threads, but secrete a cementing substance to glue the more cupped valve to the substrate. Sea snails are the main predators of oysters, but crabs, shorebirds, sea star, and fish are also important predators. Oysters, like other bivalve mollusks, are filter-feeders, and can accumulate bacterial or viral agents, pollutants, or biotoxin produced by their food (dinoflagelates and diatoms) that can be harmful to human.
Gosling EM: Bivalve molluscs: biology, ecology and culture. Malden, MA, USA: Fishing News Books; 2003.