TANGIER ISLAND, Va. — Ken Cuccinelli is holding a raw oyster. It is a small, round oyster with an unusually smooth shell and a distinctive black stripe. He stands on the deck of a crabbing boat that rocks gently on the Chesapeake Bay. The former Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee tilts his head back and eats his first sample from the oyster farm that he co-founded with a small group of friends.
After losing an election, some politicians become lobbyists. Others immediately begin running for another office. Cuccinelli helped start an oyster farm on Tangier Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Praised on Fox News, scoffed at by “The Daily Show,” the outspoken conservative now seems focused on creating a new source of sustainable jobs for people on Tangier. And on how the oysters taste.
The first settlers arrived on Tangier from England in the 1600s. Their modern descendants speak an Americanized dialect of Restoration-era English. With only 83 acres of the island high enough for human habitation, cars are rare. The 727 residents (as of the most recent census) typically walk or drive golf carts and scooters. Cable TV and Internet access only arrived in 2010. While Cuccinelli lost the gubernatorial election to Terry McAuliffe in 2013, he won over Tangier Island’s devout Methodists, earning 90 percent of their vote.
The oyster-farming enterprise was the brainchild of Craig Suro, chairman of the Tangier Island Oyster Co. and once Virginia’s assistant secretary of health and human resources under then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). He was visiting Tangier several years ago with business partner Tim Hickey on a duck-hunting trip.
They hit on the idea of oyster farming as a new industry.
“We realized that this would get them out of having to depend on quotas,” Suro said, referring to catch restrictions on crabbing. “You can harvest farmed oysters year-round. And this turned out to be the best possible place to try to grow oysters.”
Suro might be right about Tangier being ideal for growing unusually good oysters. Most oysters are farmed in mesh bags dropped into just a few feet of water within arm’s reach of shore. This makes it cheap and easy to raise and harvest them. But the lower salinity of water in brackish creeks or close to the shore also tends to result in oysters without as much of the briny flavor that some aficionados prefer. In the center of the Chesapeake Bay, higher salinity makes a brinier-tasting oyster. Tangier Island’s new oyster beds are also suspended just beneath the surface, bobbing along under pairs of black pontoons over 12 feet of water hundreds of yards from shore. This distance isn’t a problem because Tangier Island’s hardy watermen already have crabbing boats that are easily turned to a new purpose.
The result of this system is a fast-growing, briny oyster with a clean flavor profile that comes from never having been in contact with the bottom. The constant agitation of the free-floating mesh sacks in mid-water also results in oyster shells that are unusually polished and smooth.
Cuccinelli, who lives and practices law in Prince William County, was initially brought in to help with the legal side of the business but quickly found himself enlisted in whatever work presented itself — painting the boathouse, driving anchor posts into the bottom of the bay and diving from a boat to set up ropes for the pontoons.
“I was swimming down to run ropes to the anchors,” Cuccinelli recalled. “I actually started swimming this past summer to work out a little bit, but I was amazed at how not-in-shape I was. Thank God we had buoys they were lobbing at me that I could hold on to.”
Suro’s organizational approach was to collect a group of investors who could each bring more to the table than just money. Twenty-three people are involved, including the former attorney general, several professional watermen and the former head of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, David Johnson. Also, Chuck, the pool guy.
“I was trying to figure out whether this pump I was looking at would work [for running a system to grow baby oysters until they are large enough to put in the open water]. And I just had no idea. And then all of a sudden, Chuck the pool guy showed up like he does four times a year,” Suro said. “So I asked him, and he looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, that will work.’ The man knows his pump and filtration systems. . . . He came out to Tangier and set everything up. We like to call him our ‘chief of engineering’ now.”
Chuck Bartlett, owner of Bartlett Pools in Richmond, has a 2 percent stake in the business.
For a figure who has seemed to attract controversy throughout his career in Virginia politics, Cuccinelli has found his way into an enterprise that isn’t the slightest bit controversial. Tangier’s residents look forward to new jobs, and biologists and environmental advocacy groups are unanimous in their support of oyster farming.
The oysters extract phytoplankton and organic particles from the water, reducing excess nutrients and improving water clarity. Agricultural runoff, soil erosion and over-fertilized lawns within the Chesapeake Bay watershed have all contributed to dangerously high levels of organic particles and algae blooms in the bay. Oysters help counter that. Unlike most subjects of aquaculture, oysters don’t need to be fed by humans. They get everything they need from the water.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation actively supports oyster farming. According to Tommy Leggett, an oyster restoration and fisheries scientist for the foundation, more oyster farming would mean a healthier bay.
“It’s a very sustainable and green business,” Leggett said, listing some of the environmental benefits of oyster farming. Oysters and their reefs provide a habitat for many other species, he said, and at certain water temperatures, adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.
Unlike commercial crabbing, oyster farming is typically not subject to closed seasons or limits on catch. A farmer can harvest as many oysters as he can grow, as long as a fee is paid to the commonwealth of Virginia for the use of the public land beneath the oysters. Allen Parks, a native of Tangier, believes that the Tangier Island Oyster Co.’s work will help watermen like him get away from the harvest limits on crabs that have stunted Tangier’s economy. Standing on a dock beside a few broken crab traps, Parks was decidedly optimistic.
“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on Tangier in the future. Tangiermen have been here for 400 years now. People are really independent. We work for ourselves. We don’t like change, but I have a feeling that this is the new commercial fishing. . . . With this, my boy, when he gets old enough, he can have his own oysters, and he can work it anytime he wants,” Parks said.
He worries that what he sees as burdensome regulations are pushing young people away from Tangier; oysters could change that. “It might help keep the younger generation on the island.”
A pair of stray cats (which seem to outnumber Tangier’s human residents) wove their way past Parks and down the dock as he spoke.
“I voted for [Cuccinelli], but the first time he came over I had no idea who he was. I wish he would have got governor. I know he would have been kind of on our side,” Parks said. “I understand in commercial fishing, you have to fish smart. You got to have fish today to fish tomorrow. I know you need regulation, I know that. But you don’t need to go overboard with that.”
Cuccinelli reflected on the differences between his career in politics and his post-election effort to help watermen such as Parks.
“I’ve participated in or run businesses before, but not one like this. And practicing law, especially as attorney general, is very different from the physical labor involved in painting the boathouse, setting line anchors and tying off buoy lines,” he said. “It was also a spectacular feeling to have several of my daughters out with me when we were painting the boathouse. They did a lot of work.”
Indeed, Cuccinelli seemed at ease among the crabbers, fishermen and waitresses of Tangier. He greeted people by name and stepped smoothly in and out of a rocking crab boat as if he’d been doing it all his life, never appearing to glad-hand or hustle.
“There’s no question that I get a different type of satisfaction from helping to successfully do the hands-on work needed to make TIOC a reality,” Cuccinelli wrote by e-mail shortly after spending the day on Tangier. “And it’s particularly motivating because of the watermen we’re working with and what I already know of Tangier Island’s need for greater opportunity.”
If there is any downside to establishing a Tangier Island oyster-farming industry, Leggett says, biologists and environmentalists have not found it yet.
“It’s sustainable, it provides food for people [and] it takes pressure off of other species for food,” Leggett said. “For a place like Tangier Island, where the people depend on fishing for a living, it provides another opportunity for the watermen to make a living.”
Back on dry land, Cuccinelli strolled down a narrow street past the scooters and crab pots and backyard gravestones of Tangier. He mused about his first taste of the product.
“It was salty. It was basically what I’d hoped it would be. No grit. . . . I was really happy with that. Each of us, I’m sure, had a nervous moment wondering how this is going to taste, and it tasted just like we’d hoped it would.”