Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken once described the Chesapeake Bay as an “immense protein factory.” He might just as well have called it an “immense job factory,” given the countless number of people who have made a living off the Bay and its resources over the centuries.
Even today in its degraded condition compromised by pollution and habitat loss, the Chesapeake is a powerful economic engine. And the small, encouraging improvements that scientists are now beginning to see in the Bay’s health are also being mirrored by small and encouraging growths in Bay-dependent jobs and businesses.
Just over a decade ago, two Richmond, Va., cousins, Travis and Ryan Croxton, inherited their grandfather’s defunct oyster business on the south bank of the Rappahannock River in Topping, Va. Wishing to revive a family tradition, the pair decided to try oyster farming, or oyster aquaculture. They consulted a number of watermen and shellfish aquaculture experts, including Chesapeake Bay Foundation oyster restoration scientist Tommy Leggett, and in 2002 launched Rappahannock River Oysters, growing native Chesapeake Bay oysters and marketing them to restaurants and raw bars.
Today, their business is booming, a testament not only to the hard work and business savvy of the Croxtons, but also to the widespread appeal of the Chesapeake Bay and its seafood. The Croxtons, in fact, are as much about selling the Bay, its culture, and traditions as they are selling oysters.
“People just enjoy what’s coming from the Bay, and if you market it really well, it’s the easiest thing in the world to sell,” Travis says. “It’s great food and a great story to tell, all contributing to the health of the Bay.”
And the health of the economy. Since their 2002 startup, the Croxtons have expanded Rappahannock River Oysters and now employ around 15 people full time at their farms in Topping and Chincoteague, Va., where they produce their signature namesake Rappahannocks, Stingrays, Witch Ducks, and Olde Salts oysters. They also contract with some 30 independent watermen from around the Bay to supplement their line of Barcat oysters.
In 2011 they opened a small oyster bar and tasting room in Topping called Merroir to help showcase these delicious bivalves. Today the little restaurant provides jobs for 30 people in rural Middlesex County. It worked out so well that last year they opened a second restaurant, this one in Washington, D.C., called Rappahannock Oyster Bar. That restaurant employs 15.
And just a few months ago, the Croxtons opened their third restaurant, Rappahannock, in downtown Richmond, a busy, friendly corner restaurant that supplies jobs for 50 people.
In all, the two-man, fledging oyster company of a decade ago now provides a regular paycheck to some 140 people, from watermen to aquaculture specialists to chefs to wine stewards to waiters and waitresses working their way through college.
And that’s just part of the impact the business has on the region’s economy. The Croxtons also make it a point to buy all their oyster-growing equipment, oyster “seed,” and restaurant menu items, from fish to produce and meat to beer and wine, from local Virginia vendors. Partnerships with local wineries, breweries, and festivals also help promote state and regional businesses.
If you consider the ripple effect those dollars have on local economies, and consider the local and state taxes paid as a result, the impact that this one enterprise has on Virginia’s economy is in the millions of dollars, said Travis.
And actually the economic stimulus provided by Rappahannock River Oysters extends much farther than Virginia. The company now ships Chesapeake oysters to restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Hong Kong, and Thailand. That’s right, there are folks in Asia enjoying the fruits of oyster commerce – and some tasty hors d’oeuvres – from this one company.
The Bay “means everything to us,” Travis says. “Our business, all the restaurants, all our employees, are centered on oysters. It all goes away if we don’t have clean water to grow our product…The Bay is resilient, but mankind has to do his share to make the odds in favor of more oysters, more grasses, more rockfish, and more crabs. It all goes hand in hand. We have to do our part to be smarter.”
So the next time you hear someone suggest that cleaning up the Bay will have to wait, that jobs and the economy come before the environment, that we can’t afford to restore the Chesapeake until times are better -- remember the story of Rappahannock River Oysters.
Can’t afford to save the Bay? If we want a healthy economy, we can’t afford not to.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation