A century ago, scallops thrived in the Chesapeake Bay. But over-harvesting took its toll and dredging wiped away eel gras, which scallops to cling to for survival. A hurricane in 1933 completely decimated the population.
“There’s never been one seen in the bay since that time,” says Rappahannock Oyster Company co-owner Travis Croxton.
Until recently. Rappahannock Oyster Company is now working to help restore the local scallop population and make the mollusks commercially available in the mid-Atlantic again.
Ryan Croxton, Travis’ cousin and business partner, first learned about the Chesapeake scallops while reading an article from the Nature Conservancy about eel grass. “We never knew [about] this, so it piqued our interest completely,” Travis Croxton says. They discovered that the Nature Conservancy was working with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to bring back the Chesapeake scallops. But Croxton says the project hasn’t been well funded, and there wasn’t previously much commercial interest. “[There was] a lack of knowing how to market it, and we’ve never been shy about marketing,” says Croxton.
Different subspecies of the scallop are prevalent in the New York area and around the Carolinas and Georgia but not in between. Rappahannock brought both of them into the Chesapeake early last summer, but most of them didn’t survive. “We got 50,000 scallops last year, and we killed about 49,000 of them,” Croxton says. (Unlike wild scallops that thrive among eel grass, Rappahannock grows them in the same cages they use for oysters.)
But now, they’ve figured out how to grow the finicky shellfish. Croxton hopes to have a new crop of scallops ready in October and harvest around 2,000 per week through June. Rappahannock will sell the limited supply to restaurants in D.C. and Richmond to start; chefs José Andrés and Bryan Voltaggio are already clamoring for them. The year after, Rappahannock plans to significantly increase its harvest to 20,000 scallops per week.
One challenge remaining is how to best ship the scallops. Unlike oysters and clams whose shells close tightly, scallops like to have their “mouths” open. “No one has rules on this. There’s no guidelines on what to do or how to do it,” Croxton says. “The scientists tell us they have a shelf life of three days, but we’ve been doing tests and finding out it’s a week. We need to do more and more tests to figure all this stuff out.”
While most bay scallops at the grocery store seafood counter are just the adductor muscles, Rapphahannock’s scallops can be served whole on the half-shell like a clam. Unlike large sea scallops where you clean out the guts, Croxton says it’s not necessary with these inch-and-a-half sized creatures.
“They taste super sweet, super clean, a little bit of brine because we grow them over in Chincoteague with the Olde Salt oysters,” Croxton says. He adds that they’re planning to try growing some scallops in the lower salinity oyster grounds of the York River. “Ultimately, just like we did with the aquaculture of oysters, we want others to get into it and help increase the wild population. If we can prove that we can grow them in two different salinity locations, that’d be great.”
Photo by J.P. Sabatier