Blessing the Waters, Restoring the Waters
Getting More Bang for Clean Water Bucks

Oysters Making a Splash in Virginia

P6170015Oysters are in the news this week, and in a good way. A very good way.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that the Old Dominion’s 2012-13 oyster harvest totaled 406,000 bushels. That’s the largest catch since 1987 and a 60 percent increase over the year before.

Moreover, the dramatically improved oyster harvests are producing dramatically improved economics – more money and jobs in Virginia.

“The ripple effects through the economy from last year’s unexpectedly large oyster harvest resulted in an estimated $42.6 million in economic value, using a multiplier of 2.63 on a dockside value of $16.2 million,” the governor’s office said.

The Maryland oyster harvest also was up last season, at 340,000 bushels, and the state reported a record number of baby oysters placed in protected areas of the Bay for restoration purposes.   

Oysters are making a comeback in Virginia for several reasons.

Time and natural selection are slowly working to give wild Chesapeake Bay oysters greater natural DSC_0081resistance to two diseases, MSX and Dermo, that have devastated the Bay’s oyster population for decades.

Virginia and Maryland also are working harder to manage public oyster reefs and grounds. Virginia, for example, has gone to a rotation system in which watermen are allowed to harvest protected areas only once every three years. This allows more oysters to continue growing and producing more babies.

Virginia is also spending more money to replenish state-owned oyster grounds with empty oyster shells. The shells provide critical surface areas for baby oysters floating in the water to settle upon and grow. This year’s state budget includes an unprecedented $2 million for shell replenishment.

The shelling efforts not only should boost future harvests; they also should boost the state’s economy. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission estimates that every $1 dollar the state spends to put oyster shells in the water yields $7 in economic benefits, including more oysters and more jobs.

DSC_0076Efforts to rebuild oyster reefs using shells, reef balls, and other materials are especially ramping up in such Virginia rivers as the Lafayette, Lynnhaven, and Piankatank. These restoration projects, often involving partnerships among state and federal agencies and private groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, are intended not merely to produce more oysters for eventual harvest; they’re aimed at restoring oysters’ critical ecological roles in the Bay as water filterers and food and homes for other marine plants and animals.

A major factor driving larger oyster harvests Oyster Farm 7is the growing popularity and success in Virginia of oyster aquaculture, or oyster farming. In fact, of last season’s 406,000 harvested bushels, nearly two-thirds were grown on privately leased oyster grounds, the state says.

As heartening as all this good oyster news is, remember that just 50 or 60 years ago Virginia’s annual oyster harvest was nine or ten times greater; a century ago, as much as 20 times greater. We clearly have a long way to go to restore oysters in the Bay to more sustainable levels.

That’s why the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is calling upon Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe to build on current efforts and dramatically expand oyster restoration over the next four years. CBF is challenging the new governor to fully restore oyster populations in at least three Virginia rivers and to sustainably grow the annual harvest to 500,000 bushels.

Ambitious? Yes, but doable if Virginia continues to use science-based, responsible management and cracks down on illegal poaching.

DSC_0320Of course, oysters need clean water to grow and thrive, as do the fish, crabs, and other critters, including the human kind, that depend upon a healthy Chesapeake Bay. As important ecologically and economically as it is to restore oysters, it’s even more critical to restore clean water to the Bay and its rivers and streams.

Virginia’s governor and those in the other Bay states must continue aggressively implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint to reduce water pollution from all its sources. The Blueprint will restore our waterways and our economy, a point not missed by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber this week released its own “Blueprint Virginia” business plan for the state; it strongly supports continued efforts to restore the Bay and Virginia rivers.

Healthy waters = a healthy economy. That’s a winning formula for everyone.

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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I love eating oysters. When I lived close to the beach I used to go diving to get them with my family all the time. I think it is awesome that they are trying to rebuild oyster farms. I didn't know this could be done just by adding the shells back into the water.
Alena |

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