Return of the Oysters

“One of my favorite memories is going to our grandfather’s house, and he’d have his big shucking glove on, with a big basket of oysters next to him. He’d shuck the oysters and hand them to us every time we’d pass by, which we made sure was often.”

Travis Croxton, 31, and his cousin Ryan Croxton, 36, grew up slurping raw oysters the way other kids gobbled potato chips. Their great-grandfather started Rappahannock River Oysters in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay in 1899—when oysters were so abundant, the bivalves were known as “Chesapeake Gold.”

Travis and Ryan’s grandfather took over the business in 1961, and decades of overharvesting, disease, pollution, and habitat destruction soon began to have an effect. In the 1970s, when the boys were growing up, the bay’s oyster population was declining but still yielding harvests of 15 million bushels of oysters each year.

The oyster population was decimated by the late 1980s; scores of companies, including the Croxtons’, went out of business. With fewer oysters, the health of the bay declined. Oysters feed on sediment and algae, which, when left unchecked, cloud the water and kill underwater grasses essential to maintaining the bay’s water quality. Cleaning up the water meant restoring the oyster population. Scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation began experimenting with aquaculture. Though oyster aquaculture has been used for many years in Europe, Asia, and Australia, and the west coast of the United States, it hadn’t been tried in the Chesapeake region because the oyster harvests had been so bountiful for so long.

“It took about 400 years to decimate the oyster population in the Chesapeake, and it’s going to take several decades to make significant progress in restoring the population,” said Tommy Leggett, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Aquaculture Program manager. In the 2003–04 season, for example, only 53,000 bushels of oysters were harvested from the Chesapeake, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Oyster aquaculture is going to be a key part of the restoration in the years to come,” said Leggett, a longtime oysterman who now uses aquaculture for his shellfish business (he also grows oysters for the Croxtons).

“It took about 400 years to decimate the oyster population in the Chesapeake, and it’s going to take several decades to make significant progress in restoring the population.”

Aquaculture contributing to environmental restoration? The notion may seem strange, given that many people’s views of aquaculture are shaped by reports about farmed salmon, generally considered a disaster for the environment. Indeed, salmon farming, according to the private, nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, can contaminate waters with huge amounts of waste and promote the spread of disease and infection in the severely confined fish population. Non-native farmed salmon can escape into the wild, spread disease, and compete with wild salmon for food and habitat.

A sound form of aquaculture

Oyster aquaculture, on the other hand, is generally considered to be environmentally sound. Native oysters are grown and replenished alongside the wild native species. There is no need to introduce additional feed because the farmed oysters, like the wild oysters, are vegetarians and their diet consists of naturally occurring algae. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide, “Shellfish farms cause little impact on the environment, putting farmed shellfish on our ‘Best Choices’ list,” which includes fish “caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.”

Meanwhile, as scientists tested oyster aquaculture in the Chesapeake, the Croxton cousins were pursuing their careers, Travis in finance and Ryan in publishing. In 2002, the Croxtons read about the aquaculture experiments in the bay and decided to use oyster farming to revive Rappahannock River Oysters, as a way to honor their grandfather. “We worshipped our grandfather when we were kids, and we knew how important the oyster business had been to our family through the years,” said Ryan.

Shuck and Swallow

Because the Chesapeake Bay is an estuary, where salt water from the Atlantic Ocean mixes with fresh water from rivers and streams, oysters from the Chesapeake have distinctive flavors. “The oysters have different tastes, some saltier or sweeter than others, depending on what part of the bay they’re from,” said Todd Gray, chef/owner of Equinox in Washington, DC.

To harness these different flavors, the Croxtons contract with several small oyster farmers who grow oysters in various parts of the bay. Among the oysters these farmers produce are the sweet-salty York River oysters, the buttery, full-bodied Rappahannock River oysters, and the briny Stingrays.

The Croxtons have some advice on eating oysters: Keep it simple. Oysters are best eaten raw. If you do cook them, don’t add dozens of ingredients, which hides the oysters’ flavor.

The cousins’ favorite way to cook oysters is roasting them, in the shell, on a grill. Keep a thick glove and shucking knife nearby. Other essential ingredients for roasting oysters? A bunch of friends, plenty of beer, and lots of melted butter.

While keeping their day jobs, they spent two years learning sustainable aquaculture and working with Leggett and other local oystermen who were trying oyster farming. The cousins’ first harvest was ready in early 2004. Their deep-cupped, buttery oysters were on that year’s spring menu at the renowned four-star Le Bernardin in New York City; the cousins had schlepped a cooler full of fresh oysters to New York and talked their way in for a taste test. Other clients have included top restaurants such as Craftsteak, Daniel Boulud Brasserie, and Nobu in Las Vegas, and the Inn at Little Washington, Equinox, and Hank’s Oyster Bar in the Washington, DC, area.

In September 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, husband-and-wife chefs Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing served Rappahannock River oysters on the opening night of their new restaurant, Longbranch, in Abita Springs, Louisiana. The couple had become regular restaurant clients of the Croxtons when they worked at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in New York City. And in November 2005, the Croxtons were named by Food and Wine magazine as two of the year’s “top young talents who’ve changed the world of food and wine by age 35.”

Reaching out to other farmers

All the while, the Croxton cousins have also continued working their day jobs to finance Rappahannock River Oysters. They’ve hired four full-time employees, and they’ve formed a co-op with selected local oyster farmers to offer a wider variety of Chesapeake oysters from around the bay. The company now supplies about 30,000 oysters a week to several dozen restaurants throughout the nation.

They say the tough schedule is worth it for a chance to work together on a venture that connects them with their family. “The Chesapeake was once the biggest oyster source in the world,” said Travis. “We want the Chesapeake to be recognized nationally as a premier place for oysters once again.”

Oyster aquaculture remains a fledgling industry in the Chesapeake. Perhaps two dozen or so people are practicing oyster farming on a part-time basis. This past summer, two of the region’s few remaining large oyster companies, Bevans Oyster Company and Cowart Seafood Corporation, announced they were forming a joint oyster aquaculture venture, which they hope will generate large harvests of oysters in the coming years.

Meanwhile, in an effort to revive the Chesapeake oyster industry, government officials are debating whether to take the controversial step of introducing fertile Asian oysters into the bay, a move that the National Research Council recommends delaying until more is known about the potential environmental consequences of introducing non-native oyster species into the largest estuary in the United States.

“In our grandfather’s day, oystering was about hunting and gathering,” says Ryan. “Oyster aquaculture is about farming. But even though he wouldn’t recognize the methods we’re using, I think he’d be happy about what we’re doing.”

Consumers can buy fresh, live oysters, delivered overnight in an insulated container, through Rappahannock River Oysters.