Mathews hatchery revitalizing Virginia’s oyster industry

by Rona Kobell, Bay Journal News Service - Posted on Nov 26, 2013 - 02:09 PM

Photo: Mike Congrove tends to his bottle nursery, which he built after visiting hatcheries in Tasmania using the technology. The bottle nursery helps oysters grow faster in a controlled atmosphere. Photo courtesy of Dave Harp / Bay Journal News Service

Mike Congrove tends to his bottle nursery, which he built after visiting hatcheries in Tasmania using the technology. The bottle nursery helps oysters grow faster in a controlled atmosphere. Photo courtesy of Dave Harp / Bay Journal News Service

The end of Callis Wharf Road is not the end of the world; it just feels like it is.

From the careful-where-you-step pier at the dilapidated dock house, the protected waters of Milford Haven sprawl out, vast and rough in a brisk wind. To the west is the Piankatank River; to the north, the rocky Rappahannock. They all meet in the mainstem of the Chesapeake, just on the other side of an outbuilding barely holding its own against the wind and waves.

Only a small sign at the other end of the complex announces there is life within: Oyster Seed Holdings.

It is here, on Gwynn’s Island, that a young, one-time graduate student from Hampton Roads named Mike Congrove and a third-generation Deltaville waterman named Rufus Ruark Jr. have built the hatchery that is fueling the state’s fast-growing oyster aquaculture industry.

Oyster Seed Holdings has helped transform Virginia’s Middle Peninsula into a cottage industry of oyster growers, employing dozens of workers and supplying several high-end restaurants. It is fueling a nearly $10 million industry statewide, one that oversaw the planting of more than 28 million oysters in 2012. And every year, it gets better, faster and more efficient: Last year, Oyster Seed Holdings produced 55 million single-seed oysters for cages and floats and 1.1 billion eyed larvae for spat-on-shell production. More than half of all Chesapeake Bay growers buy their seed from Congrove’s and Ruark’s company. Not bad for a three-employee company that’s been in business less than five years.

"I think Mike has saved us. I’m serious," said Tommy Leggett, who manages the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster farm as well as his own commercial operation. "He came along at a time when the industry was starting to grow. He’s been extremely reliable to the best of his ability. I think we’d be in trouble if he wasn’t there."