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The New Story of Sustainable Oyster Farming in the Chesapeake Bay

The New Story of Sustainable Oyster Farming in the Chesapeake Bay

  • Photos by Mikkel Vang
  • Text and Recipes by Lucinda Scala Quinn

On a remote island off the coast of Virginia, residents are turning sustainable seafood into a robust business—and preserving their local culture along the way. Here's how they do it, plus our best recipes starring oysters.

Welcome to Tangier

Steps from the ferry that welcomes folks to the island, a wooden sign reads: “For almost 250 years, the people of Tangier have wrested a living and lifestyle from the waters that surround them.” To the naked eye, not much has changed in that time on this fleck of land, located roughly 12 miles into Chesapeake Bay from mainland Virginia. Today’s residents descend from generations of local families, and the small population (about 700) has a unique dialect, rooted in colonial-era English. Accessible only by boat or plane, it’s devoid of traffic lights, malls, and liquor stores, and most people get around on foot, bike, or golf cart. It’s edged in weathered docks, with crab shacks on stilts over the water.

An Island in Flux

However, these days, those shacks see a lot less action than in years past. Tangier Island was once known as “the soft-shell-crab capital of the world,” but recent regulations to protect the bay’s blue crab have inhibited what had been its primary economy. A number of local watermen have turned to tugboat work, while others have simply left. An added complication: The island faces record-breaking rising sea levels and an eroding shoreline.

The Team

Enter Tim Hickey, Craig Suro, and David Fonville, who are determined to stem the tide. In 2014, the mainlanders (known on the island as “comeheres”), who had previously visited the island to hunt and fish, founded the Tangier Island Oyster Company. Teaming up with locals Allen Parks, Tracy Moore, and his wife, Trenna (who is by day the island’s math teacher, and its first waterwoman, before and after the school bell rings), they raise and sell farmed native oysters (Crassostrea virginica) from seed to maturity. Two goals drive them: providing a predictable source of income and encouraging future generations to stay. “With the company’s growth comes opportunity for other Tangier families,” says Trenna. Now 34 team members strong, the business is a farm-to-table operation, cultivating an environmentally friendly food that doesn’t deplete the bay and helps clean the water.

Ocean to Table

Lined in tagged rows, like grapevines in a vineyard, the oysters grow in cages just below the surface, feeding in the most nourishing layer of the water. Oyster “spat” (seeds) are planted cyclically and grow to full size in one year. Then they’re sorted and graded, loaded on a boat, covered in ice, and shipped to Jessup, Maryland, where they’re distributed to area restaurants and markets.

A Local Delicacy

Eaten plucked out of the bay, the bivalves taste like that first whiff of sea on a spring morning. The meat is a harmonious balance of salt and sweet, elemental and mineral; the finish is bracingly crisp and clean. When fried or gently simmered in cream, as in the dishes below, they become custardy and delicately earthy.

The Life Aquatic

As the sun rises over the bay each day, the watermen prepare to harvest, syncing up to the rhythms of the waves and tides. “I love this place I call home,” says Trenna. “And because of oyster farming, I am experiencing it in a whole new way.”

  • sunset on tangier fishing hut

    Each bag of oysters is tagged, then shipped to the mainland.

  • tim hickey

    Hickey at work.

  • waterfront restaurant tangiers chesapeake bay

    The Waterfront restaurant, one of the few on the island, opens for the season in mid-May.

  • david johnson boat flag

    Tangier Island Oyster Company CFO David Johnson heads out on the water.

  • todd poormon

    Poormon has fished and oystered up and down the East Coast for years.

  • tourist ferry

    A seasonal ferry takes tourists to and from the mainland.

  • sunset on tangier fishing hut

    Each bag of oysters is tagged, then shipped to the mainland.

  • david johnson boat flag

    Tangier Island Oyster Company CFO David Johnson heads out on the water.

  • tim hickey

    Hickey at work.

  • todd poormon

    Poormon has fished and oystered up and down the East Coast for years.

  • waterfront restaurant tangiers chesapeake bay

    The Waterfront restaurant, one of the few on the island, opens for the season in mid-May.

  • tourist ferry

    A seasonal ferry takes tourists to and from the mainland.

All Is Calm

The sun sets over a fishing hut on the main harbor, ending another day of visiting the oyster beds, harvesting those that are ready, and checking on the ones still growing.

The Recipes

Tasting the briny oysters of Tangier Island inspired new takes on some classic oyster dishes.

Oysters on the Half-Shell with Vinegar Sauce

Plump, juicy raw oysters are topped with a drizzle of spicy, tangy sauce.

Hot Crab-and-Oyster Dip

Oysters are nestled into a savory, cheesy crab mixture, baked until bubbling hot, and served with raw vegetables and crackers.

Chesapeake Blue Crab Cakes with Fried Oysters

Chesapeake blue crab cakes are crowned with a fried oyster and fresh tomato-and-cucumber relish.

Oyster Stew with Virginia Ham

Stewed oysters and Virginia ham impart savory, smoky depth to a broth of cream and sweet apple cider.