Meet the Oyster Professor

Feb 20, 2013

Oysters were once plentiful on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, but their numbers have fallen dramatically over the last century, due to overfishing, pollution and disease. 

Scientists and watermen are working to bring them back, and the partnership has led to a unique course at the University of Virginia – one taught, in part, by a man who has no PhD but could easily write a dissertation on his beloved bivalves.

Four generations of Biddlecombs have lived on the Eastern Shore, harvesting oysters.  76-year-old Dudley Biddlecomb began work when he was just five years old.  

My father used to raise oysters by the thousands of bushels. Nowadays if we get 300-400 bushels, we think we've done right well."

But he’s been thinking about the demise of the oyster – coming up with better ways to cultivate them – putting babies in baskets that float above the sea bed, where they’re protected from excess sediment.  

“If I don’t learn something every day, I’ve wasted a day.”
His expertise caught the attention of Steven Macko, who teaches oceanography at the University of Virginia.  

“He is a person that’s in the field.  All of the things that they’re learning about -- products of science and biology of keeping organisms alive – he’s doing it," said Macko.

So Macko asked what it would take to get Biddlecomb to Charlottesville to teach some classes – how much would he charge to make the 150-mile trip?

“You could buy my gas.  Okay, we can do that.  I said, “I like to eat.   Okay, we’ll take you to dinner.  I might have to spend the night.  We’ll put you up  in a hotel,” and those items plus his good friendship and the chance to talk to these young people – that’s my reward.

Biddlecomb takes teaching seriously – seeing  students as the future of his industry and of Chesapeake Bay. “There are a lot of things that I don’t know, and I hope that some of them or maybe all of them will continue to study and try to figure these things out, because oysters are a filter feeder, and oysters help to purify the water, and the water quality is the key to everything we’re doing, so the more oysters you have, the more water they can filter.  And the more water you filter, the cleaner the bay, and the rivers will be, and in my case,the more oysters will grow.  So it’s ecology and economy.”

And he invites the students to come and visit him back on the Eastern Shore. “We take ‘em out on the boat and show ‘em what we do, and we call it Dude Oystering – similar to Dude ranching.  Up in Maryland, that’s kind of a tourist thing up there.  They take people out dude oystering, dude crabbing, dude fishing, and they let the people do the work, and they pay to do it!”

In addition to teaching classes, Biddlecomb has served as a master artist in the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Folklife Apprentice Program.  He helped the Fishermen’s Museum in Reedville to assemble its boat collection, and he’s featured in a documentary narrated by Sam Waterston called The Last Boat Out.