Annual harvests of Bay oysters have increased from a low point of 50,018 bushels in 2003-04 to more than 745,000 bushels in 2012-13. That’s nearly a 15-fold increase, and rising.
The rebound is good news not only for seafood lovers and the watermen, packing houses, and restaurants that sell oysters; it’s good for the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters help filter and clear Bay waters and provide food and homes for an immense number of fish, crabs, and other marine critters. And while oyster can’t restore the Bay themselves, the Bay will not be restored without a robust and healthy oyster population.
Driving much of the rebound in oyster harvests is the Bay’s thriving oyster aquaculture industry,
especially in Virginia, where “oyster farming” and harvests from private leases account for more than 60% of the state’s annual oyster haul. A report this month from the Virginia Sea Grant Marine Extension Program provides the numbers.
The data was compiled by surveying Virginia shellfish growers, who said they expect to beat last year’s numbers by 51 percent and sell 50 million market oysters by the end of this year. They’re ramping up to meet growing demand. More people are farming oysters in Maryland waters, too, but the industry is in its early stages, and annual numbers are not yet available.
The burgeoning oyster aquaculture industry is causing Virginia regulators to scramble to keep up with the demand for necessary permits and leases, and it’s creating more wealth, jobs, and businesses -- from the commercial hatcheries that supply oyster seed, to boat and equipment manufacturers, to shucking and packing houses, to raw bars and restaurants.
It’s also amazing some of the Bay’s longtime watermen.
“I think Virginia may well reach 500,000 bushels next year,” says Tommy Leggett, oyster fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and owner of Chessie Seafood, an oyster aquaculture company he operates in Virginia’s York River. “I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime.”
And it all depends upon clean water. That’s why it is critical that Virginia, the other Bay states, and restoration partners fully implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the state-federal plan to reduce pollution and return the Bay to good health. As scientists and economists agree, a healthy environment and a healthy economy are two sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other.
Like oysters and a strong economy? Save the Bay.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation