How the Chesapeake Bay Scallop Is Making a Triumphant Return
Soon, it'll be in the best restaurants and seafood shops in the country.
"I guess they're right; apparently you do have to suffer for greatness," Ryan Croxton says, laughing through clenched teeth. The temperature outside is a brisk 40 degrees, but boating through a relentless, needling drizzle on Watts Bay off of Chincoteague Island, Virginia, it feels well below freezing. The only thing heated has been a debate about The Beatles between Ryan (pro Beatles) and his cousin Travis Croxton, co-owners of Rappahannock Oyster Company. But even that dwindles to disapproving grunts as the salt-soaked wind pummels them into stone-faced resignation.
The small boat, driven by family friend Eli Nichols, buzzes past ghostly duck blinds and, in the distance, a rocket launch pad from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Entering Cockle Creek, Nichols cuts the engine and slows next to an avenue of floating cages. The trio pull on gloves and brave the icy waters, hauling up mesh cages with dozens of scallops hanging from the metal latticework. Travis plucks one from the interior and is examining its fan-shaped shell when his cell phone erupts, breaking the silence.
"Right on cue," he says, flashing the screen at Ryan. Another seafood purveyor has texted about the availability of bay scallops this year. "Oh, that's nothing," Ryan says, and pantomimes a scroll that stretches to his feet. "I now have a list this long of chefs begging for them."
Word has definitely gotten around, to chefs from California to Washington, D.C. But it's not only the scallops' culinary promise that has made them one of the world's hottest seafood commodities. The Croxtons are doing for the Chesapeake bay scallop what they did for the oyster in 2001: bringing back a bivalve from the verge of collapse.
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In 1933, a category 4 hurricane battered the Mid-Atlantic coast, wiping out coastal Virginia's native eelgrass, home to the Chesapeake wild bay scallop. In the storm's aftermath, a thriving commercial fishing industry was obliterated. What once yielded as many as 1.4 million pounds of scallops annually died overnight and never recovered.
That was until 1999, when the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at the College of William & Mary spearheaded an effort to restore the region's eelgrass and improve water ecology. By 2014, when Ryan Croxton learned about the program's progress, VIMS seeds had already yielded more than 4,000 acres of plants in the bays of Virginia's Eastern Shore.
His interest piqued, Ryan contacted Dave Rudders at VIMS about working together and experimenting with bay scallop aquaculture. They were fortunate that a Long Island hatchery luckily had available seed stock, but the first shipment died in transit. And then 90 percent of the next perished after being transferred from their upwellers—tank systems that feed and nurture embryonic shellfish until they're mature enough for a natural environment.
"Bay scallops are temperamental—they need tons of room to grow, they don't transfer well, and they're very, very sensitive," says Ryan. What kept the Croxton cousins going were the results.
Eaten raw and whole (not just the adductor muscle, as is the case with sea scallops), they're meaty like clams and briny like uni, and exhibit the same kind of regional merroir as a boutique oyster. When cooked, they're sweet and buttery like lobster, but with a less sinewy texture.
In 2016, Rappahannock Oyster Company was ready to reintroduce the world to the Chesapeake's most prized seafood. The Croxtons hosted a dinner for journalists and sent sample boxes of bay scallops to high-profile chefs like José Andrés (Minibar in Washington, D.C.) and Chris Cosentino (Cockscomb in San Francisco). Everyone was blown away. "We had similar little scallops in northern Spain, and they're just so flavorful," says Andrés. "You hardly even need to do anything to them."
A year after the dinner, the Rappahannock team had even more success after bringing down 400,000 scallop seeds from Falmouth, Massachusetts, and refining their grow-out techniques. This fall, the Croxtons will complete their first commercial harvest, all of which will be served in the Richmond location of their Rappahannock Oyster Bar, which also has outlets in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Topping, Virginia.
But Ryan and Travis are already thinking much bigger. They're looking to open their own bay scallop hatchery on Chincoteague Island, which would mean significantly more product, all with a higher survival rate due to the island's proximity to their Rappahannock cages bobbing in creeks that feed into the bay.
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"Europe, Australia, and the American West Coast now rely on the Japanese oyster, because the native populations have been decimated," says Ryan. "That was going to be our fate in the Chesapeake Bay until we revived them and built an industry on top of it. Bay scallops are more of the same, and that's what gets me jazzed about all of this. We can do something cool for the market while also giving back."