Coastal Virginia’s Aquacultural New Wave

Pro-Business Environment Boosts Bivalve Production

by Eric J. Wallace

Tom Perry steers a flat-bottom skiff through the gentle Fleets Bay chop and v-lines toward what, lit by the rising sun, appears to be a football-field sized flotilla of small dark rafts. A closer look reveals hundreds of bobbing oyster cages affixed to black, rectangular buoys.

“I traveled all over the U.S. and Canada studying oyster farms and concluded that, when combined with the right location and husbandry techniques, this is the best way to consistently produce world-class oysters,” says Perry, who founded White Stone Oysters in 2014.

Raising bivalves at the top of the Chesapeake Bay water column keeps them in constant motion, which stunts bill growth, naturally polishes shells, and helps form a deeper cup. It also creates stronger, healthier mollusks by suspending them in the cleanest water possible, assuring abundant food-supply, and forcing them to close during waves.

Perry and a team of three watermen hoist a cage from the briny, estuarine water. It’s filled with big, white-shelled oysters that look like they’ve been scrubbed clean by a line-cook. Shuck one and you’ll find virtually no grime or grit, just plump white meat — an indicator of healthiness.

Fresh from the Chesapeeake Bay to you. Coastal Virginia's shellfish entrepreneurs are big players in the state's auquaculture industry.

Fresh from the Chesapeeake Bay to you. Coastal Virginia's shellfish entrepreneurs are big players in the state's auquaculture industry.

“How good are these oysters?” says chef Jeremiah Langhorne, a James Beard Best Chef alum who helms famed Michelin-starred Washington D.C. eatery, The Dabney. “I could put together [a plate of] the most revered oysters in the world, and not only will these hang, they’ll be as good, if not better than any of them.”

Perry is part of a new wave of high-end, boutique oyster farmers that have come in the wake of the success of trailblazing forbears like Ward Oyster Company and Rappahannock Oyster Company. These and other predecessors helped spearhead a bivalve renaissance that’s boosted harvests in and around the Chesapeake Bay to more than 700,000 bushels—a 35-year high—and helped grow Virginia’s commercial seafood economy to $1.1 billion annually. The state is now the third largest seafood producer in the U.S.

“I can say with 100 percent confidence that, at this point, if you’re going to farm oysters, Virginia is the best state to do it in,” says Perry, who partnered with a college buddy to found his first oyster company, 38° North, in Maryland in 2011. The 36-year-old toured facilities in every major coastal producing state and conducted an informal feasibility assessment of rules, support programs and regulations while preparing to launch his own business. “It’s obvious that Virginia wants to support its producers, believes in what we’re doing and tries to make it as easy as possible for us to succeed.”
The pro-business environment is the result of the uniquely symbiotic effects of a booming shellfish industry.

White Stone Oysters PHOTO Courtesy of nick McCraRy

White Stone Oysters. Photo Courtesy of Nick McCraRy

On one hand are the economic benefits. According to a 2022 Virginia Cooperative Extension report, the state’s seafood and aquaculture industry directly supports 7,187 jobs with a combined total of $168.1 million in labor wages across positions that range from marketers to office workers, distributors, processors, aquaculture farmers and watermen. Total 2020 tax revenues were around $26.4 million. And that’s before you factor in restaurants, retail sales and impacts across support industries like packaging materials, boats, machinery, transportation, repairs, maintenance and so on.

Then there are the environmental impacts. Mollusks like clams, mussels and oysters are the natural equivalency of water treatment plants and help filter out nutrients like dissolved inorganic nitrogen that comes from sources like agricultural fertilizer and manure. Studies undertaken by the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, for instance, have found a single oyster can filter about 50 gallons of seawater a day. The process improves water clarity and lets in more sunlight, which boosts the growth of important seagrasses and increases oxygen levels.

Wild oyster reefs, meanwhile, provide important habitat and feeding grounds for aquatic wildlife and, when large enough, serve as barriers to storms and tides, preventing erosion and protecting productive estuarine waters. They also sequester significant amounts of carbon by using dissolved CO2 from the atmosphere to produce shells and sheltering marsh grasses from erosion.

A report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates the economic value of those environmental services — without factoring in increased animal populations valuable to commercial fishing or harvests — at $40,000 per acre annually.

“In Virginia, the public and private fishery are closely intertwined: an increasing oyster population in any one area, harvest, sanctuary or private ground will typically benefit the rest,” said the Virginia Marine Resource Commission in a 2023 statement. That means the entire “seafood industry, both recreational and commercial, benefits not just from the increased number of oysters created by continued restoration work, but by the cascade of positive impacts a more fully functional ecosystem creates for all users.”

That said, the bay’s shellfish population — and commercial harvests — remain radically low compared to historical highs. Scientists estimate today’s oyster population to be 1% of what it was prior to European settlement. Overharvesting combined with habitat destruction, pollution and disease culled oyster harvests from a peak of more than 20 million bushels in the late 1800s to just 23,000 bushels in 2001.

Photo Courtesy of Rappahannock Oyster Company

Photo Courtesy of Rappahannock Oyster Company

Joint efforts between environmental groups, policymakers and star producers like Rappahannock Oyster Company — which ironically got a reboot from fourth-generation watermen, Ryan and Travis Croxton, in 2001 — helped the beloved bivalves make a comeback. State and federal agencies now spend upward of $2.51 billion annually on Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration. Oyster populations have blossomed to nearly 5 billion, and there are plans to double that number by 2025.

But the effort is far from over says Chesapeake Bay Foundation executive director, Chris Moore.

“[We are] still in the very early stages of a comeback after a tremendous amount of investment in reducing pollution to the bay, years of diligent fishery management, and significant successful state and federal investment in oyster restoration,” he said in a December statement announcing the historic oyster harvest. After all, oysters alone could once filter all the water in the Chesapeake Bay — about 19 trillion gallons — in a week. Today, that would take more than a year.

Still, Moore says there’s much to be excited about. More than 2 square miles of wild oyster reefs have been restored to date. And the number of active oyster farms increased by nearly 75% between 2013 and 2018 alone.

“I can’t describe how profoundly thankful I am to be able to play a small part in all of this,” says White Stone founder, Tom Perry. He’s increased lease holdings year-over-year and now sells more than 2 million oysters annually, including through a new online store that ships farm-fresh bivalves to retail customers within two days of picking. He has plans to double production within the next five years.

“Oysters are my passion, and the Chesapeake Bay is the best place in the world to farm oysters,” says Perry. “I love this place and intend to do everything in my power to see it thrive.”

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