The Crookston oyster family has been asleep for a long time, but in 2002, a new generation, Travis and his cousin Ryan Crockston, laid a tumultuous plan – to return to producing high-quality oysters by adopting an innovative one. Aquaculture Practices. Experts tell them it won’t work, the Chesapeake Bay oysters are a poor product. They were right, at least at first.
“We killed a lot of clams, but we learned quickly,” admits Travis.
By 2004, they had oysters that they could be proud of. So they loaded a cooler and headed for it Manhattan. “We literally opened the Zagat Guide to find the best restaurant,” says Travis. They ended up at the delivery entrance at Le Bernardin, the seafood shrine of celebrated chef Eric Ripert. “I think they felt sorry for us, but the chef liked the sample. So they put our oysters on the menu.”
That kind of credential opened the doors, and the news spread that Chesapeake Bay was once again producing oysters fit for high-end raw bars. Soon there were dozens of other producers, often family operations, working up and down the bay farming. In 2004, the Crookston family harvested 3,000 oysters. In 2006, the number was 300,000, and in 2019, it reached 10 million.
Even as these numbers take a massive pandemic hit, someone still has to harvest oysters. Returning to bustling Rappahannock, the boat drops anchor near a knot of swaying buoys. Hundreds of oyster cages are hidden by the murky waters below, resting 6 inches from the bottom on metal legs. Crew members use long-handle hooks to catch a thick rope and wrap it around the anchors of the boat. The cages are fixed spaced out along the rope, and the boat pole winch swings them on board, and they fall and fall.