Chief Farm Officer Patrick Oliver, right, and crew member Josh Dusci spread quarter-sized juvenile oysters into cages to be placed in the Rappahannock River in Topping, Va., on May 9, 2016. Rappahannock Oyster Company is a century-old business that has switched to aquaculture in recent years to yield a more sustainable harvest.
by Joan Smedinghoff
June 16, 2016
For centuries, Chesapeake Bay residents and visitors alike have enjoyed the many benefits oysters have brought them. They’re a source of income for the watermen who harvest them, joy for the people who eat them and, for everyone else, they’re the bottom-dwellers that help filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay. But decades of overharvesting have depleted oyster stock to the point where current populations are less than one percent of historic levels. To reconcile a high demand with desperately low numbers, many in the oyster business are turning to aquaculture, or underwater farming, for solutions.
Rappahannock Oyster Company was once an oyster farm like many others; buying wild spat (baby oysters), laying them underwater on leased plots for three years and then dredging them back up. But when cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton took over their grandfather’s business in 2001, they saw a chance to revitalize the company and shake up how they farmed oysters. They began trying new approaches, such as buying seeds from a hatchery instead of spat taken from the Bay, and putting them into cages instead of directly on the river bottom.
And they didn’t just change the way they farmed oysters—they also changed how they did business. A tasting room at their farm in Topping, Virginia, and oyster bars in Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C., serve the dual purpose of bringing oysters to consumers and educating them about farm-grown oysters. Chief Operating Officer Anthony Marchetti explains that their process is more sustainable; instead of further depleting the Bay’s oyster stock, “every oyster we put in the water is one that wasn’t there before.”
Through their method of oyster farming, Rappahannock Oyster Company hopes to get their oysters to hungry customers without impacting the long-term health of the Bay. One of their goals, Marchetti says, is to take the pressure off the wild stock of oysters, to someday get back to levels where they could be harvested—with smart management—without worrying about their or the Bay’s viability.
Oyster farming is becoming the norm in Virginia. They are the most rapidly developing sector of Virginia shellfish aquaculture, and the state is number one in oyster production on the East Coast. Newcomers to the field aren’t interested in further depleting the wild populations, says Marchetti. They’re opting for aquaculture, he says, because “you reap what you sow.”
Crew members retrieve cages of mature oysters from the Rappahannock River at sunrise.
LEFT: A cage of oysters is sprayed with water just after harvest. RIGHT: A young blue crab escapes one of the oyster cages, which can provide habitat for reef species.
Workers sorting oysters keep up with a machine that automates some of the processing.
Grow-out Manager Michael Robertson helps grade oysters. Oysters that are too small for market are set aside to be returned to the water.
Crew member Richard Burlingame empties cages near a conveyor.
Burlingame shovels oysters into a bin feeding the conveyor.
After the conveyer, oysters are cleaned by spray nozzles inside a tumbler.
LEFT: Crew member Cal Smith empties a basket into a sack for delivery. RIGHT: As the oysters are sacked, they are stacked and kept cool with ice.
LEFT: Expert oyster shucker Pete Woods serves up oysters on the half shell at Rappahannock Oyster Company's tasting room, Merroir, just a few footsteps from the rest of the company's aquaculture operation. RIGHT: Merroir offers outdoor guests a view of the Rappahannock River.
Burlingame shakes an oyster cage once against the side of the boat before it is lowered into the water. It usually takes about 18 months in the cages for oysters to reach the right size.
Oliver holds juvenile oysters, known as spat, which Rappahannock Oyster Company gets from Oyster Seed Holdings, a commercial hatchery in Mathews County, Va. A paddle wheel upweller keeps river water flowing over the tiny oysters, providing them with a steady meal of plankton. "They're feeding on what's in the water naturally," Oliver said.
A worker leaves his mark next to a cage to be planted.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
food Virginia oysters Rappahannock River photo essay aquaculture Seafood