J. Carter Fox had heard the stories of the once-robust Chesapeake Bay oyster grounds. But in four decades of summers at his family place in Reedville, VA, the longtime paper executive rarely saw anyone working the bottom. Local fishermen told him there hadn’t been oysters in those Northern Neck waters for ages. All they could do, they said, was hope the diseases killing the bivalves went away and the species came back.
Fox might have bought that explanation — except in 1998, he and his wife, Carol, bought a summer home in Ile de Re, an island off the west coast of France. The view there was similar to the one from the window in Reedville — except it was filled with oyster growers. They were working on boats, with racks and bags, cultivating an industry that was worth $254 million a year at the time and was one quarter of the entire French seafood production.
France, like Virginia and Maryland, had lost most of its native oysters, first to overharvesting and then to disease. (For the Chesapeake, the diseases were MSX and Dermo; for the French oyster, it was the parasite bonamia.) But the country introduced a Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas, in the early 1970s and quickly mechanized its production. The French were using sterile oysters, called triploids, which grew quickly to harvestable size before diseases could kill them. They had hatcheries producing seed for large oyster farms, which planted them in bags that sat in the intertidal zone, where the shellfish feasted on phytoplankton. In two decades, the French had turned around their industry; it ranked third in the world for production, behind Japan and Korea.
“The French did not sit back and wait for wild spat to strike. They would take action,” Fox said. “It was clear that nothing was going on [back home in Virginia]. We were continuing to use the old methods, and if you continue to do the same thing over and over again, and you don’t have success, you’re not very smart.”
Curious about how the French managed such a feat, Carter and Carol Fox wandered into a laboratory of IFREMER, the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, at La Tremblade on the southwest coast. It was lunchtime; everyone was gone except a researcher named Philippe Goulletquer. He had spent three years working at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s laboratory at Solomons, spoke flawless English, and knew all about the plight of the Chesapeake Bay oysters.
Fox and Goulletquer decided the only way to bring back the oysters in the Chesapeake Bay was to bring the decision-makers to France. So in 2000, they organized a trip that included three Virginia politicians, three oyster scientists and an oyster grower. Fox, who was on the board of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, handpicked VIMS oyster geneticist Stan Allen and Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who had been involved in oyster politics in Maryland and Virginia for nearly three decades. Goulletquer helped the group gain entry to French farms and translated as needed.
At the time, Virginia was in the early stages of considering the introduction of a nonnative species into the Chesapeake, Crassostrea ariakensis. Fox supported the introduction, but said the trips were not solely to promote it. Whatever species ended up coming to the Chesapeake, he reasoned, would need to be farmed.
Upon their return, Fox, Allen and Rob Brumbaugh, who was also with the Bay Foundation but is now with The Nature Conservancy, wrote a paper explaining their findings.
“We have a sense of urgency about the restoration of oysters in Chesapeake Bay,” they wrote.
To succeed in oyster farming, they wrote, the Chesapeake needed a new attitude about aquaculture, new equipment and new laws. Already, it had an advantage in that VIMS had the potential to produce triploids, using technology that Allen had invented. VIMS was using it in testing how ariakensis would do in the Bay.
Allen was already aware of large-scale aquaculture around the world through his research. But he said the trips arranged by Fox were instrumental in showing key people a vision of the future — their future — that they could scarcely imagine.
“You had this citizen who was so enthused by what he saw in France and saw no reason why the Chesapeake Bay couldn’t do it, too,” Allen said. “He helped them see it was the wave of the future, but we were nowhere near going there yet. He brought the people over who could make a difference.”
After the first trip to France, Fox was appointed to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. As the ariakensis trials wore on and an introduction was becoming less certain, Fox decided to take another group to France. This time, he included Jim Wesson, head of oyster conservation and replenishment for the commission and longtime oyster grower Tommy Kellum.
Goulletquer said part of the trip’s success was being able to show Kellum and others that French oyster companies were similar to Chesapeake Bay ones — small, family-owned coastal businesses. When he was living in Solomons and talking about aquaculture in the 1990s, Goulletquer said, Maryland watermen feared that oyster farming would become like modern agriculture, with the profit centered in large companies, and everyone else scraping by.
“They listened to me, but it was pretty far away from what they were doing. So it was difficult to explain what was possible,” said Goulletquer, whose office in France is decorated with photographs of skipjacks and tongers.
Wesson, inspired by his trip to France, traveled to Puget Sound and the Gulf of Mexico to learn more about their industries. When Virginia received $7.5 million in federal disaster funds in 2008 for a crash in the Bay’s crab population, Wesson invested a few hundred thousand dollars in oyster growing equipment and training.
Based in part on what he’d seen on his trips, Wesson instructed dozens of watermen in aquaculture techniques.
“France was the first time I really got to see some production hatcheries,” said Wesson, who paid for all of his trips himself. “They were just so big. It wasn’t lost on us that whether we ended up with a native oyster or ariakensis, it was just aquaculture. The thought was, whatever we ended up growing, this is how we needed to do it.”
In August 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland and Virginia decided against a nonnative introduction and agreed to work together on restoring native oysters, including the expansion of efforts to promote aquaculture. The decision came in part after the National Academy of Sciences concluded that an introduction was too risky. Goulletquer was on that panel. Even though France’s industry rebounded quickly from diseases with a nonnative, he said, scientists know much more now about the hazards of introduction. Scientists believe that gigas, a Pacific bivalve brought to the Delaware Bay in the 1950s introduced MSX, which devastated native oyster populations.
Some Virginians remain wistful for ariakensis. Kellum grew the species for several years during the VIMS study, and Wesson wishes Virginia could have four species like Puget Sound has to hedge disease bets and make the industry more competitive.
But in the decade since the last trip to France, Virginia developed the largest oyster aquaculture industry on the East Coast, worth $16 million in 2015. It has eight hatcheries delivering disease-resistant seed to dozens of small oyster growers, and some larger ones like Kellum. He has 600 acres under his own leases and his family has been growing oysters for more than a century.
Maryland, impressed by the revival in Virginia, has taken steps to emulate it. In 2009, the state changed its restrictive leasing law to expand the area of the Bay where oysters could be privately cultivated, and began taking applications the next year. It also used some of its federal crab disaster funds to provide low-interest loans to commercial fishermen wanting financial help to get into aquaculture. Many Maryland oyster farms resemble Virginia ones, with oysters growing in cages or in floats on the water.
When Fox returns to his Reedville home, he now sees the same view as he does from his French island place: beautiful water, filled with oysters and oyster farmers. Kellum’s wife is working the Fox family leases, and Fox’s children help when they are in town. Fox is 76, living mostly in a North Carolina retirement community. He said he’s “very happy” about his role in bringing back the Virginia oyster — and thankful that Goulletquer did not go out to lunch that day.
“I had the ability to talk to some of these people, and they would listen to me, and they agreed to go, and when they got back from the trips, they did things,” he said. “The people we took on the trips were obviously the right people. They were people who could have influence on how oysters were grown in the United States and in Virginia. And they have.”