Eroding Bay Islands Could Be Helped by Experimental Buoys
Nation’s Waters Still a Long Way from Clean

Tide Rising for Virginia Shellfishing

Good news this week from Virginia’s shellfish industry and more evidence that a cleaner, healthier Chesapeake Bay is a boon to the economy.

“The shellfish aquaculture industry in Virginia continues to grow, adding significant value to the state’s seafood marketplace,” says the Virginia Sea Grant Marine Extension Program in a new report, “Virginia Shellfish Aquaculture Situation and Outlook Report.” 

Virginia continues to lead the nation in the farming, or aquaculture, of hard clams, producing 171 million market clams in 2012 and generating an estimated $26.8 million in revenues, up nearly $1 million from the year before, the report says.

Equally encouraging is the continued growth of Virginia’s oyster farming industry. The report says state oyster growers sold more than 28 million cultured oysters in 2012, a 21 percent increase over the year before.

8.25aquaculture2These are oysters grown individually in racks, cages, and floats and sold for the “half-shell” restaurant market. (The data don’t include sales of “spat on shell” oysters sold for the shucking and packing industry, which thanks to more efficient hatchery processes is expected to continue to expand as well.)

And even though more oysters were grown and sold in Virginia last year, the median price per oyster continued to increase to 31 cents. Smaller growers (fewer than 4,000 oysters sold) reported average prices as high as 95 cents, and one grower was paid $2 per oyster!

In all, Virginia’s oyster farmers received an estimated $9.5 million in revenues last year, a healthy boost of nearly $3 million, or 46 percent, over 2011 revenues. That’s proof there’s a burgeoning market for Virginia oysters, not only in the Old Dominion but elsewhere. The report notes, in fact, that more than half of all Virginia oysters are sold out of state.

P6170015Hatcheries that produce the baby “seed” oysters – a key component of Virginia’s aquaculture infrastructure -- also reported big increases in sales. According to the report, Virginia hatcheries saw a four-fold increase in oyster seed sales from 2008 to 2010, and a 20 percent spike from 2010 to 2012. (Sales in 2011 were down dramatically because of still-undetermined water quality problems that stunted seed production that year.) 

Finally, the report found that all of this oyster growing activity generated 176 full- and part-time jobs in Virginia. While cautioning that employment numbers are still a bit sketchy at this early stage of the aquaculture industry’s life, the report notes, “There is a consistent expectation that with successful development of both spat-on-shell and cultchless oyster aquaculture, additional employment will be required to meet the greatly expanded planting and production needs.”

PlateOf course, as promising as the report is, sales today of Chesapeake oysters still pale compared to those during the Bay’s heyday in the 1880s, when oyster harvests hit a historic high of nearly 20 million bushels landed annually. That was before overharvesting, disease, and pollution crashed the Bay’s oyster population. Back then, oysters were such a valuable fishery in the Bay that watermen called them “Chesapeake Gold.” 

Imagine -- if we can continue to implement the Bay Clean Water Blueprint now in place, continue to reduce pollution, and return the Bay to good health, what a gold mine Chesapeake oysters can be once again!

Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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