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Aquaculture Booms, But Pollution Looms

8.25aquaculture2Shellfish aquaculture – “farming” oysters and clams in controlled situations rather than hunting and gathering them in the wild – continues to be a growth industry in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay region.

A recent report found the economic output created by clam and oyster aquaculture operations in Virginia totaled $81.2 million in 2012. The industry combined to provide jobs for 925 people, paid wages and salaries of $27.1 million, and generated tax revenues of $3.6 million.

The report, prepared by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Virginia Sea Grant Extension Program, was released last month.

“Shellfish aquaculture has grown dramatically during the 1991-2012 period, and oyster aquaculture is showing signs of continued growth,” the report said. “Such growth underscores the importance of evaluating future prospects for expansion in shellfish aquaculture.”

In other words, clams are hot, and oysters are heating up fast.

Number of hard clams sold in VA


Virginia clam aquaculture has been booming for a while. State clam farmers sold 171 million hard clams worth $26.8 million in 2012, numbers that have remained relatively constant for the past several years. Most of the clams – 86 percent – went to out-of-state buyers, a source of real economic growth for the Eastern Shore, where nearly all clam aquaculture in Virginia is done.

Number of aquacultured oystersOyster farmers in Virginia sold 28.1 million oysters last year, a spike of nearly 5 million more from the year before and the seventh straight year of major production increases. The oysters brought in $9.5 million.

But it’s not just the clams and oysters themselves that have value. There are scores of businesses and services on the front end, back end, and behind the scenes that benefit from the state’s booming aquaculture industry – hatcheries that produce clam and oyster seed, boat builders and repairers, container and packaging firms, trucking and other shipping companies, ice manufacturers, warehouses, advertisers, restaurants, raw bars, to name a few. The industry’s multiplier effect is considerable and growing.

And it all depends upon clean water and a healthy Chesapeake Bay. While that seems obvious especially to clam and oyster farmers, it’s also no secret that much of the Bay system continues to be plagued by pollution. Runoff from farms, city streets, and suburban lawns, inadequate and leaky sewer systems, failed septic tanks, even air pollution still threaten water quality and the seafood industry that depends upon it.

This week, algal blooms sparked by excess nutrient pollution continued to blossom in the York, Lafayette, and Photo2501 Elizabeth rivers in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region. Such blooms not only stunt vital underwater grasses but also contribute to “dead zones” of oxygen-starved water that can stress or kill oysters, clams, and fish. The blooms are a regular summer occurrence in the lower Bay.

Earlier this summer, the Virginia Department of Health ordered all shellfish harvesting halted in the upper York River because high bacteria counts in the water posed threats to human health. The action came on the heels of sewage overflows in West Point, Va.

And several swimming beaches in Hampton Roads have been temporarily closed this summer due to high levels of bacteria in the surf. The source: runoff pollution and sewage overflows.

Certainly Virginia and the other Bay states are working to reduce pollution. The recent announcement that Virginia is directing $31 million in surplus revenues to the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund, as directed by law, is a positive development.

But recurring algal blooms, beach closures, and shellfishing bans are clear evidence there’s more work to be done to reduce pollution. Remember that the next time you’re slurping a Chesapeake Bay oyster or sipping a bowl of clam chowder.

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Clam and oyster sale charts, courtesy of VIMS/Va. Sea Grant)

Comments

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Mr. Epes,

Are you suggesting the shellfish aquaculture business is contributing to the algal blooms in the lower bay and overall poor water quality in tht bay?

Andy...not at all. If anything, more oysters in the water can help improve water quality and the Bay, whether they're growing in aquaculture operations or wild on public and private grounds. The more oysters out there filtering away, the better.
Chuck Epes

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