(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

2020 was supposed to be Rogue Oysters’ year.

The four-year-old enterprise founded by husband-wife duo Taryn Brice-Rowland and Aaron Rowland in the Northern Neck community of Lancaster had already taken a hit early in its life when record-breaking rains swept through Virginia in 2018, diluting the salty waters where the bivalve thrives and wiping out that year’s crop. 

But the pair persisted, beginning again the laborious two-year process of raising oysters from seed to shell. They started selling to other oyster businesses that supplied restaurants through the wholesale market and laid plans to break into direct restaurant sales themselves. This year they finally hired their first employee, with a planned start date in April.

Then the new coronavirus hit.

“Our orders basically stopped in early March,” said Brice-Rowland. Now, she said, “We have 300,000 oysters in the water right now that may not ever find a home we intended for them. We’ll have to find a way to get rid of them.”

Rogue Oysters isn’t alone in that predicament. All up and down the coasts and waterways of Virginia, where John Smith once reported the oysters “lay as thick as stones,” the farmers who cultivate this prized marine resource are faced with a tough predicament. The oysters they’ve raised are piling up, but there’s nowhere for them to go.

“Whereas you can kind of mothball a restaurant … the farm is actually a living thing,” said Travis Croxton, co-owner of Rappahannock Oyster Company, which operates a facility in Topping as well as restaurants in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Charleston and Los Angeles. “They’re animals that are growing.”

‘Absolutely the worst time possible’

COVID-19 has hit virtually every sector of the economy hard, and oysters are no exception. The industry has faced a double whammy: like other agricultural products, it’s tied to timelines that can be neither slowed nor halted, leaving producers faced with unloading their stores or else seeing them rot. But unlike other agricultural products, oysters aren’t really a necessity — and so consumers aren’t rushing to fill their cupboards with them.

“We’re a boutique grocery item. We’re not an essential foodstuff,” said Croxton.

Because of that, much of the business Virginia oyster growers do is with restaurants, all of which were ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam to close their dining rooms March 24. Croxton said his company’s oyster sales are down to about 3 percent of their normal volume.

“I don’t know that shuckhouses are even taking oysters right now,” said Brice-Rowland.

Compounding the problem is the cycle on which oyster aquaculture operates. Most growers raise the bivalves for market on a 12- to 24-month schedule. Once they mature enough to be sold for consumption, their space is taken by younger oysters raised in nurseries. 

But if there’s nowhere for growers to sell their mature oysters, there’s also nowhere for the juveniles — which will become future crops and future profits — to go. And at this time of year, many producers have already ordered their oyster “seed,” the term used for the immature bivalves that oyster farmers buy to raise, and are waiting for it to arrive.

“We have 10 million oyster seeds coming in for our nursery,” said Croxton. “It’s hit us at absolutely the worst time possible.”

An empty facility at Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping, Va. (Travis Croxton/Rappahannock Oyster Company)

Benefits economic and ecological

Virginia has bet big on oysters in recent years. Today the state is the largest oyster producer on the East Coast, and the sector is still growing. In 2018, Virginian oyster farmers sold more than 32 million of the creatures with an estimated value of $14.5 million; numbers were expected to rise in 2019. (An annual report is issued jointly by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Virginia Sea Grant but is not yet available for 2019.) To the annual $4 million the state puts toward oyster restoration and replenishment efforts, this year’s budget passed by the legislature added $10 million for building new reefs.

The sector has also been touted as a welcome source of employment in the state’s rural coastal areas, both in the direct business of aquaculture and from the tourism the industry drives through the Virginia Oyster Trail.

“In the Northern Neck, we already have a job opportunity issue, in that there’s not a lot of opportunities for work here,” said Brice-Rowland. “We know people that could use jobs.”

But it isn’t just economics that’s driven major state investment in oysters. It’s also the unique ecological niche they fill and the promise they hold for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Oysters, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation ecosystem scientist Chris Moore, not only filter huge quantities of water, stripping out sediment and algae that can otherwise stifle the estuary ecosystem, but also through their reef building provide habitat for a huge range of species and even, in the right place, can act as natural breakwaters that protect communities and reduce erosion.

And while aquaculture doesn’t provide the same ecological diversity that a reef would, its benefits for the broader system are significant.

During the time the oysters are being raised, said Moore, “they’re filtering just like oysters in an oyster restoration project would.” And, he added, “if you go out and pull up a cage of oysters or a float of oysters, you’re going to find many of the same things in there.”

The ecological benefits have economic implications too: as part of the Chesapeake Bay Program, Virginia is subject to pollution limits and a set of federal targets for how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can be deposited in state waters. With the 2025 deadline for these goals drawing ever nearer, Virginia is looking to oyster aquaculture as a best management practice for removing nitrogen and phosphorus from the estuary’s waters. 

“When they’re investing in aquaculture, they’re investing in better water quality as well,” said Moore.

‘Just out of your control’

Right now, of course, no one is investing in much of anything. Rappahannock has furloughed many of its workers, leaving Croxton in “eerie,” largely empty warehouses, and its restaurants have begun offering takeout and delivery options. Both he and Brice-Rowland are ramping up their direct-to-consumer online sales and have been combing through the stimulus packages to see what relief might be available. 

Even that may not be sufficient, though: Brice-Rowland said the two-year schedule most oyster enterprises operate on makes dealing with the repercussions of their lost business more complicated.

“We’re looking at all the stimulus packages and the disaster loans, and they’re kind of geared toward businesses on a calendar year schedule,” she said. “The government can’t write packages for everything, but it does feel like we could fall through the cracks here.”

For Croxton, the pandemic has been something akin to a tsunami.

“All of a sudden in 10 days that’s it,” he said. “It’s not as if you mismanaged that and you’re paying the price of that. It’s just out of your control.”