When Tom Perry set out to start an oyster farm at the age of 26, he wasn’t interested in doing it the easy way.
He might have opted to raise oysters in a cage on a patch of leased bottom near the shore of Virginia’s Northern Neck. Instead, the crew from his White Stone Oyster Co. pilots a workboat each morning out of the safety of Antipoison Creek and into the wide, sometimes blustery waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
There, the Crassostrea virginica oysters grow in mesh bags inside cages hovering just below the surface of the water. The plastic floaties that support them bob like decoys in the distance. If that sounds peaceful, wait until the wind kicks up and the boat — which the captain is trying to guide between unwieldy rows of cages and lines — starts rocking, too.
“You can see some of the headaches you have to deal with out here,” Perry said, after the boat’s propeller got caught in an underwater line he was just saying needs to be removed. It’s not the first time it’s gotten in the way, but “it just never makes a lot of sense to do the things that don’t directly give you more oysters.”
But when Perry, now 31, decided to grow oysters in this open-water location, he wasn’t focused making the job easier. Instead, he said, “I spent a lot of time trying to understand what an oyster really wants and then worked back from there.”
Oyster aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay has ballooned over the last decade. In Virginia, which leads the East Coast in eastern oyster production, the number of oysters planted for cultivation has grown from a few million in 2005 to 135 million a decade later, according to an annual survey conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The most recent of those surveys found that shellfish aquaculture in the state brought in $53.4 million for farms in 2017. Hard clams represented about 70% of those sales, but oysters are the industry’s fastest growing sector.
With the surge in production, more growers are looking to differentiate their products and test the potential of new growing spaces. Commercial oyster production can take many forms, depending on the type of lease a grower pursues, and oysters can be ready for harvest year-round. They can be grown to market size in bags or cages, sunk to the river bottom or floating near the top of the water column. Raising oysters in floats on the surface — where food is plentiful enough to bring bivalves to market-size faster — is a small but growing practice. But it’s not without challenges. Leaving cages floating at the surface, particularly near the shore, can make them a lightning rod for opposition from landowners who’d rather see their waters left open for the view or for recreation. Strong storms could also rip cages left at the surface from their moorings and leave behind debris.
But today, advancements in the gear that supports floating cages makes them able to withstand increasingly severe weather in waters farther from the shore. Better systems also are addressing some of the other factors that make this brand of oyster farming so inherently difficult.
But what the open-water location lacks in ease, Perry said, it makes up for by producing a superior oyster: Faster-flowing waters carry more nutrients to the budding bivalves, their cages moored in place by a system of underwater lines. Constant friction from waves create a smoother, deeper-cupped shell. And, far from the rivers’ sometimes mucky waters, increased salinity affords the oyster meat a pleasant, briny-sweet flavor not unlike that of West Coast oysters.
Harvesting from neat rows of oyster cages under a rising sun in the open waters of Fleets Bay, Perry admitted, the view isn’t so bad either. But, on a windy day, or in the thick of winter, the job can be downright harrowing.
“That’s where having a Tangier waterman on that boat comes in handy,” said Tim Hickey, cofounder of the Tangier Island Oyster Co., which also farms the open waters in the center of the Chesapeake Bay. “Those guys are thinking about time, wind direction, approach. If I were behind the wheel, I’d be a mess.”
Hickey and his partners founded the company in 2014 in part to bring the economic benefits of oyster farming to erosion-prone Tangier Island. Now, the crew harvests about 1 million oysters a year, some of which sell for $3 apiece on the half-shell at restaurants such as Fiola Mare in the District of Columbia, where Hickey lives.
If the way chefs rave over these open-water oysters is any indication, they could be a wave of the future.
Jeremiah Langhorne, executive chef of The Dabney in the District of Columbia, told Bon Appétit that White Stone oysters taste as if “a very talented chef opened the top, seasoned the oyster perfectly and put the lid back down.” Martha Stewart Living said oysters from the Tangier Island company taste “like that first whiff of sea on a spring morning,” describing a balance of salty and sweet, earthy and mineral flavors.
In the case of both farms, the oysters’ clean flavor comes from their locale, which is far from the sediment of river bottoms where most Bay oysters are grown. Increased salinity in Bay waters also lends a brinier flavor to the bivalves, something that appeals to Americans who are more likely weaned on West Coast varieties.
“The techniques that Tom and them are using are really setting the standard now for aquaculture,” said Devin Rose, chef and proprietor of Adrift, a restaurant in White Stone, VA. “In a sense, it’s a totally different product.”
Rose, who grew up on the Northern Neck before working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Virginia and California, said having access to seafood products like White Stone’s is part of what brought him back. He remembers eating wild Chesapeake oysters while growing up, before Virginia aquaculture took off, and didn’t realize how far the industry had come until he returned.
White Stone’s oysters were featured in a New York Times magazine article that questioned whether farmed oysters are becoming so uniform and balanced that they are more like “a designed object” than wild oysters. But Perry — who lives in Richmond with his wife and two children younger than 3 — said all he did was pick a spot that does the work for him.
While many near-shore aquaculture operations run their oysters through a tumbling machine to help buffet them into tidier shapes, daily beatings from waves perform this task on open-water oysters. The steady pressure forces the shells to clamp down, developing deeper cups ideal for holding thick, juicy meat and smoothing the shell’s pearlescent exterior.
“By using a heavy-duty cage and being in the open water, these oysters are tumbling themselves, and they tend to grow at the same level,” said Myron Horzesky, chief operations officer of Massachusetts-based Ketcham Supply Co., which sells Flow N Grow floats and cages used by open-water farmers. “When you see these oysters, it looks like a cookie cutter has been stamping them out.”
These oysters, suspended in bags spaced across the cage’s compartments that allow room for them to grow uniformly, receive a steady flow of plankton at the top of the water column. An added advantage, Horzesky said, is that growers can periodically flip the cages over — so the pontoons are on the bottom and the cage is exposed to the open air — allowing their shells to dry for several hours and kill off microorganisms that compete with oysters for food.
A study by Woods Hole Sea Grant in Massachusetts found that oysters in floating cages had a higher survival rate and faster daily growth rate than those grown with bottom gear. A study in Canada had similar findings. The Massachusetts study did advise growers to test new gear on a small scale to determine if it’s the best fit for a certain locale and to research whether local permitting allows for various gear types.
Both Perry and Hickey said they were breaking new ground with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which manages oyster growing leases, when they asked about growing oysters in the Bay’s open water.
Perry found his ideal spot by referring to the VMRC’s online map of available oyster leasing sites while paddling his kayak around the Northern Neck, depth finder and salinity meter in hand. Taking aquaculture into “uncharted” waters has allowed him to avoid conflicts with shoreline homeowners and spread the water filtration benefits of oysters to new portions of the Bay.
White Stone was one of four oyster farms that The Nature Conservancy recently studied to better understand the potential water quality and ecosystem benefits of aquaculture. The report, conducted with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, confirmed that oyster farming — in contrast with other forms of animal production that can generate water pollution — removes from the water up to 370 pounds of nitrogen and nearly 50 pounds of phosphorous from each mid-size farm per year.
Perry said the farm’s unique location resonates with customers, but its success still comes down to whether the oysters taste good.
“We’ve gone up to countless chefs’ back doors, just following the grease marks and knocking on the door,” Perry said. “Most chefs are crazy busy, but they’re open to trying an oyster any day.”