The Croxton oyster beds were long dormant, but in 2002, a new generation, Travis and his cousin Ryan Croxton, hatched a brash plan—a return to producing high-quality oysters by embracing innovative aquaculture practices. Experts told them it wouldn’t work, that Chesapeake Bay oysters were an inferior product. They were right, at least at first.
“We killed a lot of oysters,” admits Travis, “but we learned quickly.”
By 2004, they had oysters of which they could be proud. So they loaded a cooler and headed for Manhattan. “We literally opened the Zagat guide to find the top restaurant,” says Travis. They wound up at the delivery entrance of Le Bernardin, the seafood shrine of celebrity chef Eric Ripert. “I think they felt sorry for us, but the sous chef loved the sample. So they put our oysters on the menu.”
That kind of credential kicks open doors, and word spread that the Chesapeake Bay was once again producing oysters fit for upscale raw bars. Soon a dozen other producers, often family operations, were farming up and down the Bay. In 2004, the Croxtons harvested 3,000 oysters. In 2006 it was 300,000. And in 2019, they hit an astounding 10 million.
Even with those numbers taking a huge pandemic hit, somebody still has to harvest the oysters. Back out on the blustery Rappahannock, the boat drops anchor near a knot of bobbing buoys. Hundreds of oyster cages are hidden by the murky water below, resting 6 inches off the bottom on metal legs. Crew members wield long-handled hooks to fish out a thick rope and wrap it around the boat’s cleats. Cages are fixed at intervals along the rope, and the boat’s pole winch swings them aboard, slick and dripping.