Sweet Spot

The Tangier Island Oyster Co. is betting its bivalves will spark both economic and environmental recovery for this singular Chesapeake Bay community.

Tim Hickey has called Tangier Island an “island of directness.” The residents’ knack for pure communication, without pretense, agenda, or ambiguity, is one of many qualities that enticed Hickey and his childhood friend Craig Suro to become involved with the local watermen community, which now farms an oyster as pure and direct as the Tangiermen themselves.

Hickey is neither a gambler by nature nor an investor by trade, yet the Washington-based writer is betting on the recovery of Tangier Island, and hopes to assist in rebuilding both the economy and the physical landscape. Experts project that this landmass—home to a community established more than 300 years ago, whose remoteness has contributed to its unusual local dialect (akin to the brogue of Cornwall in England)—will sink into the Chesapeake Bay within 50 years.

Concerned that the island’s decreasing population and foundering soft-shell crab industry were contributing to a general neglect of the island’s environmental fate, Hickey and Richmond investor Suro joined with local watermen and government leaders, including former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, in 2015 to establish the Tangier Island Oyster Company. Hickey and Suro invested in this project because they hope oyster farming will replace the soft-shell fishery and spark a desperately-needed economic turnaround. “The farming is relentless hard work, requiring constant vigilance and effort,” says Hickey. “We are really making efforts to strengthen the island. That’s what the company is working for.”

Today, the company ships around 7,000 oysters each week; last summer, it was named the eighth unique region of the Virginia Oyster Trail. So what is it about these oysters—which enter an increasingly crowded market—that Hickey and Suro believe makes them stand out? It’s all in the location. Growing just below the waves in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, the company’s bivalves are raised far from any river pollutants or grime, which results, say Hickey and Suro, in a purer oyster. “What differentiates Tangiers,” says Hickey, “is the way we raise them: in the top of the water column, in open water. The process of top-water farming makes for a more polished oyster because, by living at the top, the oyster feeds more readily and in water that is unpolluted by tributaries.” Polished smooth and made round by the tumbling ocean, and large and tender thanks to constant access to excellent feeding zones, these mild oysters have medium salinity. And they are catching on—Tangier Island Oysters can be found at restaurants in Richmond, Washington, D.C. and New York.

For Hickey and Suro, and the team behind the company, the goal is clear; bring attention to the sinking island community and spark the environmental response necessary to protect it. TangierIslandOysterCo.com

Tim Hickey gave a talk about Tangier Island and his company’s work there at the April 10, 2015 TEDxRVA. Watch the video, below.

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