Sustainable oyster farming on the Chesapeake Bay with Virginia’s Rappahannock Oyster Co.
April 27 2015
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you guys do?
My passion for the water, developed on the Chesapeake Bay at a young age, has been the constant undercurrent pulling me through life, and ultimately what beached me on the banks of the Rappahannock River five years ago. I spent several post-graduate years by the sea bouncing around from beaches on the Outer Banks, Charleston and Australia. I didn’t know what kind of “career” I wanted at the time, but I knew I wanted to be on the water, in the water, or under the water. And in 2008, I was finally able to apply my history degree in the most obvious way possible – oyster farming. I began my work with Rappahannock River Oysters (RRO) on the same waters that I had grown up on.
At RRO, we farm-raise the crassostrea virginica, or the native Eastern oyster, and then ship our goods to chefs and restaurants all over the country. We get our oyster seed from local hatcheries, then spend an average of 18 months handling, shaping, and growing the oysters to the market size of three inches. Every oyster we pull out from the water for harvest was an oyster we put in the water, and our farming efforts help to lessen the pressure on the depleted natural wild stocks. Eating one of our oysters is truly a great way to contribute to the environmental health of the Bay. It’s a taste-good, feel-good experience for those who indulge in farm-raised shellfish. Oysters filter-feed on algae in the water, and can filter approximately 50 gallons of bay water per day. As oysters feed, they remove algae from the water which allows more sunlight to penetrate to the bottom, where sub-aquatic vegetation converts the light into oxygen via photosynthesis. And oxygen in the water is just as important under the water as above it, since everything under water “breathes” oxygen as well. Oysters are obviously an integral part of the foundation of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem.
Is it just us or are oysters having a moment?
I may be slightly biased, but it certainly seems oysters are going through a bit of a renaissance. Historically, oysters have been food for both the masses and royalty alike, and I think this duality still is part of the appeal. Oysters can be as casual as popping a few at a backyard roast, or as decadent as a caviar-topped first course at the best restaurant in the country.
The popularity of “localvore” movements and the buzz word “sustainable” have also helped push the oyster into the lime light recently. More and more people care where their food is grown, how it’s grown, and who grows it. And since oysters taste like the location, or the water, in which they are grown, they have the ability to evoke a true sense of place unlike any other food. Eating an oyster is an experience that pulls at all your senses, and that is why I think they are as popular today as ever.
What’s something most people don’t know about oysters?
Oysters provide a surprising nutritional value, and are naturally high in many essential vitamins and minerals including protein, iron, omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, zinc, and vitamin C.
Why do you think someone first cracked one of those things open and ate it?
Obviously they were quite hungry. Oysters aren’t all that easy to get into, and they aren’t particularly enticing visually, so I don’t think curiosity would have been motivation enough for someone to first eat one.
How does the state of our oysters reflect the health of our waterways?
As I mentioned before, oysters are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, so the state of our oysters is a direct reflection on the health of our waterways. On the Chesapeake Bay for example, the native wild oyster population is somewhere around 1% of its historical value just a few hundred years ago. That is a big piece of the foundation we are missing, and the ramifications are evident in the struggles of other bay species. Oysters not only filter the water, but oyster reefs provide habitat and homes to all manners of fish, crabs, and shrimp, particularly juveniles. Oyster farms certainly contribute to the solution, but there are many issues that have to be simultaneously addressed in order to nurture the Bay back to full health. The good news is that the wild oyster population is slowly rebounding, and with continued education and awareness of sustainable practices, I think the trend will most certainly continue.
Can you describe the flavors of the Chesapeake Bay? Do these flavors change seasonally?
The Chesapeake Bay is unique for many reasons, including that it is the largest estuary in the United States. The sheer expanse of the Bay and its tributaries lend to many flavors, with the most discernible factor being the proportion of fresh and salt water, or salinity. Since oysters filter feed, they are going to essentially taste like the water they are filtering. Salinity is usually the most discernible component in an oyster’s flavor, and hence you see oysters described as salty, or sweet and buttery (less saline), or a happy medium where there is a hint of salt up front with a sweet finish. One could argue there is a different flavor around every bend along the Bay’s shores, just like one could argue the subtle nuances of wines from Napa Valley.
The flavor of an oyster in one locale essentially remains constant, but can be subject to slight natural variation in salinity due to rain, drought, and seasonal tides. To parallel the wine industry again, the subtle seasonal variations in oyster flavors are just like the variations grapes endure as a result of too much or too little sun and rain.
Rappohanock River Oyster Deep cupped and mineral rich, with an understated saltiness that lets the oyster's natural flavor come though, Rappahannocks offer up a sweet, buttery, full-bodied taste with a refreshingly clean, crisp finish. It's the very same oyster we started growing in 1899.
Stingray Oyster Drawn from the pristine waters of Mobjack Bay, Stingrays are the quintessential Chesapeake Bay oyster; sweet and mildly briny with a clean, crisp finish. Named after the Bay oyster's chief predator, these Stingrays bite back.
Olde Salts Oyster The truest taste of the ocean, Olde Salt oysters bring together a bold sea-side brininess with a smooth, clean follow-through. Grown off the coast of Chincoteague (think Misty), the Olde Salt oyster is more than a classic, it’s a legend.
Is oyster farming sustainable?
Oyster farming is absolutely sustainable. Every oyster we harvest was an oyster we put in the water in the first place, and the cycle is perpetual. Our oysters are not grown in closed-loop systems like some fish farming techniques, but rather in the same water as the wild oysters, so the rivers and bays benefit. Our methods minimize the visual impact on the natural landscape since our oyster cages are submerged on the bottom, and those same cages provide habitat for other sea life much the same way a natural oyster reef might.
What’s an average day like for an
The modern day oyster farmer has to be as savvy at business as he or she is at oyster farming. As a small company, everyone at RRO wears many hats. RRO has a dedicated farm crew who works the farm 52 weeks per year, as well as a shipping department and office staff to keep us operational. My days can consist of any combination of time on the water, giving tours, sales calls, inventory management, new account logistics, and always a few emails.
I have to simultaneously coordinate orders with harvests, and the logistics to go from farm to fork. We only harvest to order, so four to five times per week we are on the water harvesting to ensure our customers get oysters as fresh as possible, direct from the source.
What’s a great way to eat an oyster that most people haven’t heard of?
We serve a dish at our oyster tasting room, Merroir, called Angels on Horseback, which is roasted Rappahannock oysters with country ham and garlic herb butter. Can’t beat protein on protein.
Where would you like to see your
company in five years?
I hope that RRO continues to put more oysters in the water every year, and that the Bay is a healthier place as a result. I hope I am lucky enough to be right here in five years, on the banks of the Rappahannock, doing exactly what I am doing today.
What wines do you recommend with oysters?
There is no bad pairing with oysters, and people should always drink what they like and enjoy. But I would certainly recommend trying oysters with a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, or France if you are more traditional. But like I mentioned, I have never met a wine and oyster pairing I didn’t like.
How has the revitalization of the Chesapeake Bay helped your business, and what does it mean for others?
The word “Chesapeake” is a derivative from the Algonquian language meaning “great shellfish bay.” I believe that through RRO’s efforts, the translation won’t be lost. The focus on restoring the Bay has certainly helped our business grow since farm-raised oysters are part of the restoration solution. As the restoration efforts have grown, so have we. And our growth has helped contribute to the success of the revitalization of the Bay. There is a very symbiotic relationship between our business and the Chesapeake Bay.
What’s your favorite way to eat oysters?
My favorite way to eat oysters has more to do with the experience versus a particular preparation. In that regard, my favorite way to eat oysters is sitting around on the dock late in the afternoon, cocktail in hand, and shucking direct from a recently harvested bushel basket. Especially when there is good company to help me indulge, that’s the best way to eat oysters.
What’s your Sunday ritual?
My best Sundays begin with a good cup of coffee and a sunrise while on the boat headed out to try my luck fly fishing. After a late breakfast at home, my wife and I will get back on the boat to spend the afternoon cruising, floating or maybe exploring our favorite beaches or creeks. Boat drinks and a sun set rounds out my perfect Sunday ritual.
- The word “Chesapeake” comes from the Algonquin word meaning
- “great shellfish bay”.
- Industrialization and over
- harvesting throughout the 1880s led to a sharp decline in the
- Eastern Oyster population in
- the Chesapeake Bay.
- Between 2009 and 2010, oyster plantings in Virginia tripled.
- In 2010, the number of market oysters sold by Virginia growers increased by 34% to seventeen million.
- The Eastern Oyster is the state shellfish of Connecticut.
- The Eastern Oyster’s shell
- is the state shell of Virginia
- and Mississippi.
- The Eastern Oyster is particularly valuable within its ecosystem as a filter feeder, removing plankton and other organic particles from the water.
- A single Eastern Oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water in 24 hours.