Big Island Aquaculture: One Family’s Commitment to Clean the Bay
Bruce Vogt and his family moved to Virginia Oyster Country more than 30 years ago. When his family was drawn to a waterfront property on the Chesapeake Bay, he didn’t predict that his sons would help him create one of the most innovative oyster operations in the area.
“We started to get involved with aquaculture when our boys were in junior high and high school,” said Bruce Vogt, President of Big Island Aquaculture. “We set them up to have a soft shell crab shedding business.”
That was in the 1980s. Oysters weren’t a safe investment at the time as the MSX disease riddled the oyster industry with loss after loss. As his sons, Daniel and Bruce headed to college, Bruce and his wife returned to the corporate world, but maintained their 75-acre farming lease in the Bay.
Daniel learned quickly that college wasn’t a place he wanted to be for another four years. Luckily, he found his way back to his family and to the Bay. He began working on sturgeon research with Dr. Chris Hager of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who also had a small oyster farm. At the same time, Bruce thrived at the Virginia institute of Marine Science and even earned a prestigious scholarship. He spent many years working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Bruce brought our attention to sustainability issues facing the region and the great positive impact oysters could have on the Chesapeake Bay,” Bruce said. “Daniel saw how oysters were raised first hand. The combination really pushed us to get into oyster farming as a family.”
An Ode to Mother Nature
The average oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water every day. That includes filtering plankton, algae, and phytoplankton, says Bruce, which all cause poor water quality. This leads to improved conditions for wildlife and other seafood industries that fuel the Bay’s economy.
“I believe that the more we can scientifically prove the great positive impact on the environment, it would be better for everyone,” said Bruce. “The more we know, the better.”
Today, Big Island Oyster works with Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, the Nature Conservancy, The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Virginia Aquarium, various nonprofits and more. You can find underwater robots collecting data on the farm throughout the year. Daniel speaks at the Virginia Aquarium about sustainability. He also donates oysters and his time to various charity events to raise money and awareness about oysters and the Bay.
“I call them by babies,” said Operations Manager Daniel Vogt about Big Island’s oysters. “I absolutely love what I do and I work to produce the best quality product as I possibly can.”
Daniel is responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of the oyster farms planted throughout the area known as Monday Creek. Because the bottom is muddy and the salinity is low, he’s developed floating cages or bags to grow the oysters.
“The floating bags ensure that no mud, sand, grit, or other debris are filtered by the oysters,” Daniel said. “That means the customer doesn’t experience any of the normal grit that turns people off from oysters. We are know for the cleanliness of our oysters.”
Daniel said this surface culture is labor intensive. He is constantly out in the water moving the bags around using tumblers to encourage new growth. With just one other employee to help him out in the field, Big Island produces seven to eight thousand oysters a week, which are distributed to restaurants and businesses around Virginia and even Maryland and Washington, DC.
“People say they are the quintessential oyster,” Bruce said. “They have a clean, sweet tasting, briney flavor that leaves with you a creamy wheat finish.”
Big Island currently has a waiting list of restaurants who are hoping to begin serving their oysters. Locally, you can try Big Island oysters at Riverwalk Restaurant in Yorktown and Venture Kitchen & Bar in Hampton Roads. Williamsburg Winery developed a wine made to pair with Big Island Oysters called the Mid Summer’s Night White. The vineyard often has events during which you can try the pairing yourself.
“I compare the texture of our oysters to something more like a moist chicken,” Daniel said. “I recommend our oysters for anyone who says they don’t usually like oysters.”
Daniel and his father both have their own way of enjoying Big Island oysters. Both agree that less is more.
“I love them just raw without cocktail sauce or anything,” Bruce said. “They’re so good without anything. I do like to pair them with a white wine or rose, and I really think Williamsburg Winery designed the perfect white to go with our oysters.”
Daniel also loves to eat the oysters raw, but also stays in touch with chefs who use his oysters to learn about new ways to eat them including a new vinegar-based sauce and roasting the oysters over different varieties of wood.
“The best recipe is Mothers Nature’s recipe,” Daniel said.
Learn more about Big Island Aquaculture here.