Tom Gallivan is shin-deep in the salty water of the Little Machipongo Inlet, so close to the Atlantic that the tides flood and recede with the pull of the moon, flushing fresh algae and phytoplankton through his oyster beds and filling the animals’ bellies. Oysters grown here, in a marsh without rocks, have a clean, salty taste, without the lingering penny-in-your-mouth aftertaste of some New England oysters.
Tom and his crew haul 150-pound cages hand-over-hand onto a boat whose glitchy steering he MacGyvered the day before. Tonight’s moon will be nearly full, so today’s low tide should be long, giving them plenty of time to walk the flats and survey the crop, checking for fouling by silt or seaweed, or pilfering by predators out here next to Hog Island, a place so remote and undeveloped it’s designated as a protected biosphere by the United Nations.
A bald eagle watches from its perch on a driftwood log on a point on the edge of Sandy Island Bay. Herons hunt in the shallows. Ospreys scream and dive. There’s nobody out here but Tom and his team and the occasional shark.
“There’ll be times,” he says, “when we see something and we’re like, ‘I think I’m going to get back in the boat for a while.’”
Today, though, Tom stands in waders in the chilly early-morning tide. The sun slants through the mist that rises off the marsh. The tide’s so low he can see every tiny island, every reef, every cache of cages. He can’t loiter, though. He needs to get these oysters onto the dock and into his refrigerated truck before 9 a.m. Later in the fall he’ll be able to bring them in as late as 10 or 11, but now, in late summer, he has to hustle them in quickly so they’ll stay cool enough to be safe to eat. Oyster farming is so highly regulated by both the government and the industry itself that if he goes out on the water in the afternoon he’ll carry a GPS stick to prove to marine patrol officers that he’s out and back within two hours. It’s a rule, but he’d take care anyway.
“We’re in the shellfish business but also the public health business,” Tom says. “None of us as human beings wants people to get sick, but it’s also just incredibly bad for business, especially when you’re selling a branded product.”
Tom and Ann Arseniu Gallivan own Shooting Point Oysters, working on the western side of the Eastern Shore on Nassawadox Creek, where they produce their Nassawadox Salts, and in the nature preserve on the eastern side of the Eastern Shore, where they produce Shooting Point Salts. They are part of a new breed of oyster farmers – highly educated aquaculturists who combine the generations-long connections and traditions of Eastern Shore watermen with the science of genetics and nutrition, cross-breeding and bathymetry, and the constant monitoring of offshore winds and barometric pressure. They talk about Haplosporidium nelsoni and Perkinsus marinus, – the pathogens MSX and Dermo – that can wipe out their populations. They worry about proliferations of the native widgeon grass, because when it dies it sinks and suffocates all those baby oysters in the bottom of the cages.
“People have a perception of a waterman – an old guy, an old boat, just doing it one way,” says Ann, “but the way we have to do it is so technology-based, we have the GPS, we’re constantly sending in reports, we have clipboards in the packing house and we’re constantly recording the temperature of the cooler and of our animals when they come in and when they go out.”
The Gallivans aren’t hunter-gatherers, pulling native oysters out of the over-stressed Chesapeake Bay. They’re farmers, planting the seed, nurturing it, then harvesting it and bringing it to market.
Much of the seed starts in the nearby J.C. Walker Brothers hatchery, where Ann is CEO and hatchery manager. It is a place full of chest-high white vats as big around as wading pools, with sunlight and filtered creek water coming in from above and used water flowing out through a screen below, and of clear cylinders that look like alien transport tubes from sci-fi movies, tubes that during the season are full of algae in all shades of green. Anne grows the algae first in beakers and then in these massive cylinders – clear to allow photosynthesis – then titrates, a bit of this one and a bit of that, to feed the baby oysters she has created by hand, stripping selected females of their eggs and males of their sperm, then using pipettes to mix them carefully, making sure one male’s Michael Phelps-like swimmers don’t impregnate the whole bunch, because that kind of inbreeding would be bad for her product.
For a couple of weeks the grain-sized oysters swim around, Ann looking through their clear shells to see if she’s giving them enough algae, enough fresh creek water. The oyster babies are right-handed helical swimmers, their stubby appendage moving them in awkward circles. At 2 or 3 weeks they develop an “eye spot,” and Ann can tell they’re about to develop a 200-micron byssal thread and a gluey foot. That’s all they have to attach to something hard. If they fail, they die, and in the wild – between the lack of hard surfaces and the prevalence of predators – their odds are awful. Even under Ann’s care only between 15 and 20 percent survive.
Those that do are moved from the hatchery to the nursery, a dockside float of plastic bins suspended into the creek right outside an oyster house built in the 1880s. A small engine draws creek water up through the baby oysters, feeding them as they grow. The bins in this floating upweller system – “flupsy,” for short – each hold thousands of baby oysters so small that half a hundred sit easily on Tom’s dinged and scarred fingertips.
The Gallivans grow triploid oysters, too. Triploids, developed through cross-breeding, have three sets of chromosomes, making them as sterile as mules and thus intent only on eating and growing, with no energy wasted on reproduction. Their size stays consistent, which makes it possible to keep oysters on restaurant menus year-round.
All of them, the diploids and the triploids, will soon be hauled out of the water and into the sorting house, where they’ll be run through cylinders and washed, sorted and tumbled, which knocks off the beginnings of the elongated bill that gives wild oysters their cat-tongue shape and instead forms them into the deep round cups that make oysters on the half shell so inviting.
Ann stands on the prow of the Oyster Queen – a barge “built for duty, not for beauty,” Tom says – as he maneuvers it next to one of the poles made of stripped local gum trees that they drive into the creek bottom to mark where they’ve planted cages. She drops the stab (pronounced stahb)(good), a PVC pipe that will hold the boat in place, and Tom winches one cage down for every one he pulls up. Here, where the creek meets the Bay, the tiny oysters filter water and algae through gills like tiny whale baleen. A crystalline style in their stomach acts as a mortar and pestle to grind up anything vaguely crunchy, so they’re chewing, in a sense, with their bellies. By the time the oyster releases the water back into the creek it’s cleaner, stripped of the organic matter that clogs the Bay, and the oyster is beginning to develop the sweet, slightly salty flavor of the Nassawadox Salts line.
The ones Ann and Tom just pulled out they’ll tumble and grade and pick off the squirters and shrimp and sucker fish, then put into cages with a bigger mesh to allow for even more water flow. They’ll do this six or seven times in the two years it takes oysters to reach market size, pulling them in, tumbling them, running them back out, always leaving the dirty cages in the farm’s yard to dry so the sun can kill any clinging barnacles or grasses rather than return their nitrogen to the creek.
“It’s analogous to organic farming,” Tom says. “We’re weeding, knocking off sea squirts, which are little tunicates that’ll foul the cages, rinsing off silt, picking out weeds.”
Tom’s dad was a fisherman in New England and Tom, now 39, had wanted to stay on the water but also have a more reliable income. He got his aquaculture degree from the University of Maine, worked on breeding triploid oysters at Rutgers University with Professor Stan Allen, then came with Allen to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary (where his title was ‘Breeding and Demonstration Associate,’ making his official acronym BADASS). Ann, 42, had also worked at Rutgers with Allen, but by the time Tom got there she was at Maine’s College of the Atlantic. From there she did graduate work at Washington State University and only then came to VIMS to be its hatchery manager.
In 2001 they moved to this spot overlooking the conflux of Church Creek and the Nassawadox and built their own home, block by block, board by board. For the first seven or eight years they had the whole creek to themselves but now they share it with about 13 other oyster-farming families and a winery.
“The past six or seven years have been like a renaissance in oysters,” says Allen, now director of VIMS’ Aquaculture Genetics & Breeding Technology Center.
Ann and Tom are good at it, producing a couple million a year. They work on beautiful, breezy days and on days so choppy it’s hard to stay standing. When nor’easters and hurricanes roll in they bounce through the waves to anchor down their cages and pull in their boats. They could lose everything, or they could have a bumper year.
“It’s a gamble,” Tom says, “which is why we don’t go to Atlantic City. We just go out there to the creek, because we could lose everything at any moment, or we could have a great summer!”
“It’s not the perfect, sunny days that make the mettle of these guys,” says Allen, “It’s when they have to go out in the storm or break through the ice to get at their cages.”
Almost regardless of the weather, if someone is ordering oysters, out the Gallivans go.
And people are ordering a lot of oysters. The Gallivans’ branded oysters are on the menus at Rockefeller’s down at Rudee Inlet and at the high-end Lemaire restaurant in the grandiose Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. The couple deliver their oysters to chefs in Chapel Hill and New York, Boston and Washington. Locally they’re sold at George’s Seafood and Welton’s Seafood Markets. A smaller version called Avery’s Pearls goes up to Ryleigh’s Oyster up in the Federal Hill district of Baltimore. In one of the Gallivans’ many family-to-family collaborations, they and the restaurant owner are donating 10 cents a Pearl to the Johns Hopkins breast cancer research center; they’re already up to $5,000.
That level of success requires marketing, so when Tom isn’t smeared with tar-dark mud he’s sitting at the computer, sending out oyster-related tweets. He and Ann participate in events of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization dedicated to celebrating Southern-style food. They take chefs out to visit the cages. They drive to conferences, woo restaurateurs, take students out on their boats, help everybody they can.
“I don’t know anybody who works harder,” says Bernie Herman, a professor of American Studies and Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill who has written about the culture of Eastern Shore watermen and who came to the Gallivans when he started his own oyster plot on a nearby creek. Ann explained reproductive dynamics and Tom showed Herman a system of cages, then, heck, gave him the cages and seed and helped him hook up with the folks at VIMS.
“What was barren mud is now home to thousands of native oysters and all the myriad creatures that live around them,” Herman says. “I couldn’t have done it without Tom and Ann.”
Herman also admires the Gallivans’ commitment to improving the Bay.
“They don’t wear it on their sleeve,” he says. “They live it.”
Tom gives a little laugh.
“Out here ‘sustainability’ is not a buzz word,” he says. “It’s what you have to do to survive.”
He pilots his boat out across the water, a slight smile on his face.
“It still blows my mind that we come out here every day,” he says. “There’s the financially rewarding part of it, of course, and that’s great. But just when it’s cold and rainy and it sucks and you’re beating through waves – and these boats beat the heck out of you – you’re still like, yeah, but I’m here, I’m not sitting in a cubicle somewhere.”
He points out a giant leatherback turtle.
“I’m in one of the last great places on Earth,” he says. “It’s a pretty damn cool place to come to work every day.”
Originally published in DISTINCTION, November 18, 2012