The Chesapeake's shores used to be thick with oyster-shucking houses. They employed hundreds of people, and had a culture all of their own. Men - and it was mostly men - would sit around a table and pry the salty bivalves out of thick shells, telling stories and singing until their shift ended.
After diseases all but destroyed the wild harvest in the 1980s, most of the shucking houses closed. Those that remained had to rely on product from the Gulf of Mexico, which supplied most of the oysters in the United States until recently.
Lake "Lakey" Cowart and Ronald "Ronnie" Bevans were among the survivors. Cowart owns Cowart Seafood Co. in Lottsburg, VA; Bevans' oyster company is based a few miles away in Kinsale, VA.
But Cowart and Bevans worried that much of the Virginia industry was one Gulf Coast disaster away from losing its supply. They wondered if there was a way to raise oysters locally.
The Virginia Seafood Council seemed headed in that direction. In 2005, the group was experimenting with Asian oysters that were being considered as a replacement for the native oyster. For the experiment, they needed sterile native oysters for comparison. A sterile native oyster can grow much faster than a native wild oyster because it puts all of its energy into growth, and none into reproduction. And unlike reproductive oysters, which are only eaten in "R" months because they are runny from reproduction in the summer, sterile oysters can be eaten all year long.
Virginia Institute of Marine Science oyster geneticist Standish Allen, who invented the sterile oyster, called a triploid because it has three sets of chromosomes, provided the stock for the experiments, one of which was conducted at Bevans' Kinsale plant.
Through the experiments, the elder statesmen of the oyster industry met one of the new guard - A.J. Erskine, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science graduate who eschewed a career in research because he wanted to put his ideas in the water. Erskine understood the science of how to breed oysters. But could he develop a large-scale planting operation for both companies, so that eventually they could supply themselves?
After Hurricane Katrina, Cowart and Bevans saw no reason not to try. They hired Erskine, now 38, to build a joint aquaculture operation. Though Cowart and Bevans maintain their own boats, leases and shucking operations, they share product. The oysters begin life in a hatchery. A paddle-wheel upweller at Cowart's place nurses the oysters until they are large enough to go on the leased beds. Then, workers put the oysters aboard one of two boats - Cowart's Fat Spat and Bevans' Barnes Point - and deliver them to the leased beds. They grow to market size in about a year.
At present, the aquaculture-raised product accounts for about 15 percent of the companies' shucked product. Erskine would like to get that number to 50 percent. If he can, there's no reason other shucking houses couldn't replicate the Cowart/Bevans model and become their own suppliers.
"What we need to do is show that it's viable. I'm not sure we're paving the way, but at least we're saying to the industry, there is another way to do this," Erskine said.
Erskine had high hopes for the Asian oyster, but after five years of study and $15 million, the states and the federal government decided not to introduce it. He has no regrets about leaving the academic world for the real one, where an idea can go from a few sentences on a piece of paper to a business growing millions of oysters in five years.
"The difference with aquaculture is that we're sustainable, both with the heritage they've built and the environment," Erskine said. "To take my degree and use it as much as possible to make that happen is very gratifying."
Editor's note: This is the second set of articles in a three-part series about Maryland and Virginia wading into oyster aquaculture. Read Part One.