Seeds of Success
In less than 5 years, a young grad student turned a dilapidated boat warehouse into the engine of the Chesapeake’s oyster aquaculture industry.
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The end of Callis Wharf Road is not the end of the world; it just feels like it is.
From the careful-where-you-step pier at the dilapidated dock house, the protected waters of Milford Haven sprawl out, vast and rough in a brisk wind. To the west is the Piankatank River; to the north, the rocky Rappahannock. They all meet in the mainstem of the Chesapeake, just on the other side of an outbuilding barely holding its own against the wind and waves.
Only a small sign at the other end of the complex announces there is life within: Oyster Seed Holdings.
It is here, on tiny Gwynn’s Island, that a young, one-time graduate student from Hampton Roads named Mike Congrove and a third-generation Deltaville waterman named Rufus Ruark Jr. have built the hatchery that is fueling the state’s fast-growing oyster aquaculture industry.
Oyster Seed Holdings has helped transform Virginia’s Middle Peninsula into a cottage industry of oyster growers, employing dozens of workers and supplying several high-end restaurants. It is fueling a nearly $10 million industry statewide, one that oversaw the planting of more than 28 million oysters in 2012. And every year, it gets better, faster and more efficient: Last year, Oyster Seed Holdings produced 55 million single-seed oysters for cages and floats and 1.1 billion eyed larvae for spat-on-shell production. More than half of all Chesapeake Bay growers buy their seed from Congrove’s and Ruark’s company. Not bad for a three-employee company that’s been in business less than five years.
“I think Mike has saved us. I’m serious,” said Tommy Leggett, who manages the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster farm as well as his own commercial operation. “He came along at a time when the industry was starting to grow. He’s been extremely reliable to the best of his ability. I think we’d be in trouble if he wasn’t there.”
A Seed is Planted
Congrove and Ruark came together for their venture just as the oyster industry in Virginia was taking off.
By 2005, oyster geneticist Stan Allen of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science had figured out how to produce large quantities of fast-growing, disease-resistant oysters that could help revive the Chesapeake’s once-vast oyster grounds. This oyster, known as a triploid, is sterile, so it put its energy into growth instead of reproduction, and it reaches market size in 12–18 months instead of the three years typical of the wild oyster.
Allen was producing the triploid broodstock for trials with the Asian oyster, which Virginia officials were keen to put in the Chesapeake. He hired Congrove to run those trials. Congrove, then just 23, had an undergraduate degree in marine biology and wanted to attend graduate school at VIMS but, he said, he couldn’t get accepted. Before he worked on the Asian oyster trials, he had taken a job with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation helping to restore oyster beds.
The Asian oyster didn’t show as much promise as growers had hoped, but the native triploids performed well enough to convince Allen that they had a future. The oysters weren’t the only ones making a good impression on the veteran oyster geneticist. Allen had the chance to watch Congrove at work. He saw a problem-solver. Someone persistent. Positive. Smart. A self-starter. Exactly the kind of traits that make a good graduate student.
Before long, Congrove enrolled in Allen’s oyster biology program. Without much guidance, he embarked upon a project that determined the variables associated with growing oysters, including how much larvae a grower would need and how long it would take to make a profit. He condensed the findings into a manual, and he presented the information to growers at conferences.
Congrove took a trip to the West Coast and visited the Whiskey Creek hatchery as part of his research. He liked what he saw. Every day, the work was different. Every day, a new problem came up that required immediate solving. One false move, and the oysters could die. It required patience, precision and dedication. He thought it might be something he’d like to try.
At the same time, Ruark was encountering a seed shortage at his seafood business, Shores and Ruark. Allen’s lab was providing brood stock of triploids to all five of the state’s hatcheries, but there wasn’t enough production. All of Virginia’s hatcheries were connected to large seafood companies, and they were saving much of the seed for their own needs. Many Virginia growers had to buy their seed from hatcheries in Maine.
By 2008, Virginia had dozens of small oyster growers in need of seed. Ruark saw an opportunity to invest in an independent hatchery. He’d provide the seed money, and be a big customer, but it would be separate from his own seafood concern. He’d met Congrove, who’d graduated, but was continuing to refine spat-on-shell techniques at VIMS under a contract with the state. Ruark asked Allen if his former student could take on the task of building a hatchery.
“My reaction was, ‘if Mike Congrove can’t make a hatchery work in Virginia, nobody can,’” Allen recalled telling Ruark. “I had no doubt that he had the potential. He is just naturally adept at figuring out the way things work, at troubleshooting.”
Ruark asked Congrove if he was interested. Congrove said sure. Months later, Ruark told him he’d begun moving equipment out of an old warehouse on Gwynn’s Island and was ready to go.
“I don’t think he thought I was going to move that fast,” Ruark said. “But I was ready. I had a vibe about him. So I went and borrowed the money and put my house up.”
Mike Oesterling, a longtime aquaculture specialist at VIMS, likes to tell his students to work with the biggest animals they can find when learning to grow oysters. Start with oysters that are a half an inch and grow them to 3 inches, or start with a quarter-inch oyster and get it to a half an inch. Only as a last resort should you go into the hatchery business, he warns. It is, he tells them, the hardest part of aquaculture. That’s why most of Virginia’s hatcheries are connected to large companies, and why most of Maryland’s are run by state entities.
First, there is the cost. Ruark put up $500,000 to build the Gwynn’s Island hatchery, and it costs hundreds of dollars daily to run. There are heaters, pipes, tanks, filters, screens — all of which need constant care and cleaning.
Then, there are the profit margins. Hatcheries sell seed for a penny a spat; an oyster grower can take that spat and get 50 cents for it in 18 months, when it’s a 3-inch oyster. Hatcheries have to grow a lot of seed to make even a little profit. With the spat-on-shell oysters, about 20–40 percent will survive a spawn, Congrove said. And then another 20–40 percent of those will survive to set on the shell. More animals will be culled out for slow growth; still more will die along the way of other factors.
And that’s when everything goes right. More often than not, Oesterling said, things go wrong.
“Every hatchery has had water quality issues at one time or another.
“It could be pH, salinity, sediment — just pick one. Your water temperature drops, your larvae grows too slowly — what do you do? You have to be able to make adjustments on the fly,” Oesterling said. “Hatcheries are a lot of work. I mean, a lot of damn work.”
But Oesterling agreed with Allen: If anyone could make it work, it would be Mike Congrove.
“Anybody that comes through Stan Allen’s shop is very well-trained. They have all the tools, or they’ve seen all the tools, or they’ve actually helped develop all the tools,” Oesterling said. “Mike was very well-prepared. He had all the tools.”
At 26, Congrove was not as confident as his mentors. But he remembered something Allen had told him: You’re young. You might fail. Heck, there’s a good chance you will. But wouldn’t it be something if you succeeded?
Allen may have been drawing on his own experiences when he gave Congrove that advice. In 1979, as a young graduate student at the University of Maine, Allen genetically engineered the first triploid oyster. He was about the same age as Congrove. But he had to wait more than 25 years to see the oyster mass-produced and help revive an industry. Congrove, on the other hand, could take what he’d learned, help the industry grow and see results in just a few years.
The talk with Allen persuaded Congrove to take the plunge. But it would require some heavy lifting.
The semi-abandoned warehouse that was to become Oyster Seed Holdings was still home to a 35-foot boat mold, an old sailboat and assorted junk. Workers cleared it out and installed hatchery equipment Congrove bought from the West Coast. But estuarine water was different from Pacific Coast water, and bacteria built up in the heat exchangers. Congrove moved to chemical sterilization.
He also had to determine the right mix of algae for his animals. Now, Oyster Seed Holdings is large enough to employ an algologist, Sean Boyd. But initially, Congrove and his brood stock manager, Judy Ambrose, did the job.
Maryland oyster grower Jon Farrington remembers hearing Congrove’s presentation at a conference in 2006 and feeling impressed. Farrington, who runs Johnny Oysterseed, provides larger oyster seed to grow-out operations and was looking for a hatchery to supply his business. When he heard about Congrove’s operation, he drove south to check it out.
“It was incredible,” Farrington recalled. “They had been working on it all winter, and they had built it almost from scratch. I remember asking, what are the goals? And Judy told me, 2 billion larvae per season.”
Farrington is now a customer.
“He is a real open guy,” Farrington said of Congrove. “It’s been my experience that he has been very helpful, in terms of trying to get me larvae, and sort of being open about what’s going on.”
And Finally, Success
But as Oesterling predicted, the hatchery business wouldn’t be without its hiccups. Oyster Seed Holdings increased production by 20 percent each year and was on pace to reach its 2 billion larvae goal by 2016 until a slug of freshwater hit in 2011. That water, the result of storms and heavy rains, knocked salinity at the hatchery down from 17 parts per thousand to seven. As a result, the oysters grew far more slowly. The heavy rain runoff also brought a deluge of sediment and algae that clobbered the larvae. While large oysters can tolerate those changes, larvae cannot, and production in 2011 was down almost 60 percent; in some cases, growers like Farrington couldn’t get their product.
Water quality has settled down now, but Congrove is working with Virginia Tech to monitor changes in water quality to see if innovative management can help work around problems that occur.
“What the industry really needs is consistency. Hatcheries are notoriously bad at that,” Congrove said. “I feel pretty good about our consistency. I now want to continue to improve our product.”
To that end, Congrove has also refined the concept of a bottle nursery, where oysters are grown in what look like large test tubes and fed high volumes of food and water to help them grow quickly.
Ruark knows he took a risk on Congrove and the hatchery. His wife, he said, was not happy about him mortgaging the house. But he is glad he followed his instincts. By the end of this year, he said, he plans to make Congrove half owner of the place.
“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the hatchery,” Ruark said. “He took it and built it and turned it into what it is.”
Congrove is modest about his successes. Choosing a good site, he said, is half the battle. But the man who says he couldn’t get into graduate school and wasn’t sure he was qualified to run a hatchery at 26 has become, at 31, more confident that he can build on his success — and in turn help build the oyster aquaculture industry.
“There was a definite need to prove myself,” Congrove said. “I still have something to prove. I don’t know what it is. I’m not sure yet when I’ll be satisfied.”
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