When Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he wrote that the oysters "lay as thick as stones." But hundreds of years of harvesting every oyster in sight have brought the bivalve population in the bay to record lows. Fewer oysters means murkier water, as a single oyster can filter 50 to 60 gallons a day. Dredge harvesting didn’t help either, as scooping up wild oysters flattens the bottom and ruins their habitat.
Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton of Rappahannock River Oysters are trying to turn the tide. Their great-grandfather founded the company in 1899 when he leased five acres of river bottom on the Rappahannock River near Bowlers Wharf, VA. Their grandfather advised their father not to get into the family business, as it’s a lot of hard work with uncertain return; Hurricane Hazel wiped out their entire season’s efforts in 1954.
The cousins order spat, or baby oysters, from a few different hatcheries. The spat grow in a tank called an upweller, which pumps nutrient-rich water through a million and a half tiny oysters. After they’re big enough to be out on their own, the oysters go into cages of varying sizes, which protect them from predators. The cages go onto the river bottom, on carefully-selected spots where water flow rates, salt levels, types of algae, and the firmness of the soil are all considered.
RRO sells several varieties of oysters, which all taste different: the species is the same, but the location of the farm affects their mineral content and salinity, a concept the cousins call "merroir," a play on the French concept of "terroir," or how the land’s characteristics dictate the flavor of wine grapes.
It takes an oyster a year and a half or so to get to market size, “We were selling T-shirts the first year,” owner Ryan Croxton said. Every oyster is pulled out of the water every two weeks, inspected, and sorted for size.
Harvesting happens three times a week, always in the early mornings when it’s cooler. They use boats with canopies and tarps to shade the oysters, and try to get their temperatures down to 45 degrees as quickly as possible. Working fast, the cousins bag the oysters right on the boat and put them straight into coolers.
From this point on, it’s all about speed and how fast can they move 60,000 oysters a week to their eventual destinations. "Logistics has become our forte," Ryan Croxton says. "We pride ourselves in getting product there the next day."
From the marina, refrigerator trucks rush the oysters to local customers and the Norfolk airport for air freight on Southwest Airlines to customers farther away.
“We could not have Forrest Gumped our way any more”, Ryan says, of the cousins’ first attempts to sell their oysters. They drove to New York City with a full cooler, called the reservations line at famed seafood palace Le Bernardin, and wangled a meeting with chef Eric Ripert, who loved the buttery sweetness of the oysters and placed an order right away. RRO now works with distributors and places their oysters in restaurants and groceries across the country.
The Croxtons’ ultimate goal isn’t just to sell some seafood and make a buck, however. “Sustainability is not enough”, Ryan says. “You can build what you’re doing into something that is completely restorative.”
To that end, RRO is partnering with other local oyster growers to increase the total size of the oyster market, and to produce shucked farmed oysters under the Barcat brand. A percentage of the profits goes into their newly-established Barcat Foundation, which supports environmental programs around Chesapeake Bay.
It is, in their words, a "long-term seafood strategy" that they hope will assure the future generations of oyster lovers can keep on shucking.
Previously - An oyster primer for National Oyster Day
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