A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Conservation on a Half Shell

By Corey Jenkins Schaut, MPA '07 on October 1, 2008

Jack White, JD ’86, brushes some silt off the oysters he’s just plucked from the garden floating off his dock on Dyers Creek in Mathews County, Virginia.

“Look at this one,” he enthuses. “There’s a strike on it.” He is referring to a tiny young oyster that has attached itself to the larger one as its shell grows. The strike, he explains, must be a wild oyster—those in White’s garden are sterile.

White is elated. The strike is a sign that Chesapeake oysters, both wild and farmed, are thriving together in the bay.

“This was unheard of 10 years ago,” White notes. “That is evidence of success.”

It also is a validation of his work as an entrepreneur, advocate, and farmer who is dedicated to restoring the native oyster population.

His current occupation is a long way from his other life in Northern Virginia. After earning his law degree from Mason, White was a self-described “fixer” and government relations executive on Capitol Hill.

His property on the eastern tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula became a refuge from that busy life. Oyster farming started off as hobby and grew into a business. Since then, White estimates he has harvested more than one million oysters from the bay. Today, he cares for 45 acres of oyster leases in the area.

Through his New Point Oyster Company, White has supplied Chesapeake oysters to top-rated Washington restaurants, helping build a market for an oyster that was once derided in culinary circles. He also founded Captain Jack’s Seafood Company to sell home aquaculture systems and oyster seed. It supplies the Oyster King, an oyster float that White created to improve upon traditional containers that are unwieldy when operated by one person.

But White’s ventures are more than a business to him. The bivalves offer significant environmental benefits to the bay. Oysters are filter feeders, drawing their nutrients from the water that passes through their shells. They are also natural water purifiers. The bivalves remove nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon from waterways, filtering up to 30 gallons of water each day.

But the number of bay oysters has been dropping dramatically for more than a century. White notes that Chesapeake watermen say there were once so many oysters in the bay that the entire body of water was filtered every three to five days. With disease, over-harvesting, and pollution, that same process now takes approximately a year. Farming offers faster growth than in the wild, as well as consistent replenishment of the creatures to the water.

When White began farming in the mid-1990s, Virginia watermen were only harvesting oysters in the tens of thousands. In 2007, according to the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, about 4.8 million bay oysters went to markets. That puts White a little closer to his goal.

“I will not quit until there are a billion oysters in the bay,” White vows. “That day is not far off.”

In the meantime, White is an evangelist for oyster aquaculture, adopting the slogan, “Save the Bay—Grow Your Own Oysters.” He has worked the area’s oyster festival circuit spreading the benefits, helped found an oyster gardeners’ association, lectured before numerous community groups, and presented to government commissions on the subject.

“I trained as a legal advocate at Mason, and I’m still advocating,” he observes.

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