Rappahannock Oyster Co., Middlesex County

Rappahannock Oyster Co., Middlesex County

In 2001, when cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton took over their family’s 100-year-old oyster bed leases on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, the Commonwealth’s oyster industry was on life support. The traditional harvest method of dredging the floors of bays and estuaries had left waterways oxygen-poor and clogged with silt, and the region’s native oyster, the Eastern oyster, seemed bound for the endangered species list. Contemporary estimates placed the species at barely 1% of its historic population.

The Croxton family business was in a similar state. The family’s leases were about to expire, and previous generations, wanting to encourage their descendants to enter less labor-intensive industries, had sold off property and equipment to prepare to wind the business down. The leases were all that was left.

That lack of resources would prove crucial to the company and the Chesapeake Bay alike. Without the fleet of boats that helped the business boom in the previous century, Ryan and Travis were forced to investigate alternative harvesting techniques, eventually settling on “off bottom aquaculture,” in which the oysters are kept in cages that float on the water’s surface, away from the silty, nutrient-deprived seafloor. 

Oysters Illustration

“We were able to forego traditional methods of harvesting, which were very detrimental to the health and condition of the Chesapeake Bay,” Travis Croxton said. “We instead focused on helping to introduce aquaculture to the region — not only as a sustainable, but also a restorative approach” in which the company’s oyster spawns help the  species re-establish itself in the wild. Today, his company, Rappahannock Oyster Co., ships to top restaurants nationwide and operates five restaurants across the country.

The Croxtons are continuing to fine-tune their methods — their cages now sit on legs near the seafloor, minimizing visual disruption at the surface while helping to re-establish better growing conditions. Meanwhile, the rebounding oyster population continues to perform its crucial role of filtering excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the bay’s waters.

New Twists on Ancient Techniques 

In its most basic form, aquaculture is simply raising fish or shellfish in captivity for harvest. An aquaculturist builds a tank, holding pond, or lagoon to house the fish or shellfish, either temporarily or for the animal’s entire life cycle, before harvesting the fish for consumption or sale.

Aquaculture systems range from simple freshwater ponds and saltwater lagoons to carefully monitored manmade tanks. Systems for shellfish make use of cages or pens positioned in lagoons or bays. This arrangement takes advantage of tidal movement and natural aeration while shielding shellfish from predators. 

Many aquaculture operations rely on specialized hatcheries and/or nurseries to ensure healthy conditions for the full life cycle. Freshwater systems feature ponds or tanks of varying size and depth. The most carefully regulated freshwater systems are housed indoors under computerized temperature, light, and water quality conditions.

Oyster Illustration 02

Indoor aquaculture allows practitioners to optimize for fish health while enabling production in inland localities far away from any natural bodies of water. Blue Ridge Aquaculture (BRA) in Henry County, a four-plus-hour drive from the Atlantic Ocean, has become the world’s largest producer of tilapia, shipping up to 20,000 pounds of live fish each day, raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones.

BRA uses recirculating aquaculture systems to create a carefully monitored habitat optimized for the health of the fish. The company continually filters waste from its water while re-oxygenating it, preventing problems with one fish from spreading to the rest of the crop. 

“You can’t optimize the system when you have known sick animals in your system,” said BRA President Martin Gardner. “It’s much more efficient to keep disease out than to treat for it.”

Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, Northampton County

Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, Northampton County

Virginia Leverages Natural Advantages

Virginia was the fourth-largest state for aquaculture sales in 2018, the date of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Aquaculture. The Commonwealth’s aquaculture farms totaled a combined $112 million in sales that year, trailing only Mississippi, Washington, and Louisiana.

Virginia’s advantages to seafood producers start with the Chesapeake Bay, which makes up the majority of the Commonwealth’s more than 10,000 miles of coastline. The bay and its tributaries provide a habitat that produced more than 40 million oysters in 2018. That’s a fivefold increase since 2005, making Virginia the leading state for mollusk sales in 2018, with its $94.3 million in sales nearly tripling second-place California.

In addition to oysters, that figure includes clams, which the Commonwealth leads the country in producing each year, with more than 200 million individual hard clams harvested from Virginia waters annually. 

There’s tremendous opportunity in working with our natural resources if done in a restorative and sustainable manner. It’s also incumbent on farmers like us to ensure we are treating the waterways with respect and working in concert with the localities and neighbors to share the natural resources that our rivers and bay provide.

Travis Croxton Co-Owner, Rappahannock Oyster Co.

Like Rappahannock, Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, has been in the same family for several generations. The company made a proactive switch to aquaculture about 40 years ago and now counts 150 full-time employees who help sell oysters and clams through retail and wholesale outlets, including a burgeoning e-commerce business that started during the COVID-19 pandemic to make up for the loss of sales to restaurants.

“With restaurants closing, we had little to no market for oysters,” said Tim Rapine, Cherrystone’s managing director of operations. “That was a huge impact on growers we worked with, as well as the employees we needed to pay. It took a couple of months to work through that. Then grocery stores took on a role they hadn’t filled before, such as clams and oysters. Groceries became a big sales point for us and turned into some of the best sales we’ve seen during the company’s history.”  

VIMS, Gloucester County

VIMS, Gloucester County

Also like Rappahannock, Cherrystone benefits from a thriving Virginia aquaculture research sector. The College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester County works closely with aquaculture producers to help solve problems, boost production, and streamline operations, while Virginia Tech and Virginia State University run the new Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center in the city of Hampton. Together, Virginia’s universities provide research opportunities and guidance to stakeholders at every level of the seafood supply chain that are appropriate to each entity’s resources and techniques.

“We recognize that any shellfish grower out there has seen more of their environment than I have,” said Dr. Bill Walton, Acuff Professor of Marine Science and shellfish aquaculture program coordinator at VIMS. “Then we try to solve problems from there. Let’s say it’s an established grower coming to us with, ‘Why are my shellfish dying?’ or ‘What is this I’m seeing?’ They can bring their expertise and we can bring our science to work together.”

VIMS also serves as a testing ground for new technology and methods. Recently, that has included potential advancements in the use of radio-frequency identification and artificial intelligence in inventory management. As Walton put it, “We’re not advocating that we have a better way, but rather exploring things and putting things out there as opportunities that they can take advantage of.”

We recognize that any shellfish grower out there has seen more of their environment than I have…They can bring their expertise and we can bring our science to work together.

Dr. Bill Walton Acuff Professor of Marine Science, Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Filling Global Demand for Sustainable Seafood 

According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) data, aquaculture production passed wild fish catch in 2013 and has widened its margin since then. The United States produced $1.5 billion worth of aquaculture seafood in 2018 in a market currently dominated by Asian producers. 

Saltwater and estuary species represent the top sales volumes, but freshwater fish are increasingly being raised via aquaculture as well at companies like Blue Ridge Aquaculture, with top species including catfish, striped bass, trout, and perch in addition to tilapia. Some systems raise fish in captivity for eventual release in the wild, while other systems keep the fish contained in water pens for their entire life cycle.

Blue Ridge Aquaculture, Henry County

Blue Ridge Aquaculture, Henry County

These production numbers are happening alongside a global increase in seafood consumption. According to FAO data, global fish consumption has more than doubled since the 1960s, with the increase largely supported by aquaculture operations, where production has increased more than 50-fold during the same period. Aquaculture companies are looking to the future to see how the industry can continue to aid in the Chesapeake Bay’s recovery while providing economic opportunity for Virginians. 

“Most oyster farms are in economically depressed rural areas. We are no exception to that with our three farm locations,” Travis Croxton said. “Our goal is to work with local and state governments to really emphasize the opportunities that aquaculture and leveraging our waterways can provide to our communities. 

“There’s tremendous opportunity in working with our natural resources if done in a restorative and sustainable manner. It’s also incumbent on farmers like us to ensure we are treating the waterways with respect and working in concert with the localities and neighbors to share the natural resources that our rivers and bay provide…The economic engine that Virginia has in its waterways is virtually untapped. It can power a lot of opportunity for a lot of our citizens.”

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