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Virginia oyster production soars

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Virginia last year had its best oyster harvest in more than 20 years following a strict management plan implemented four years ago.

In 2011, Virginia’s oyster harvest was 236,000 bushels with an estimated dockside value of $8.26 million. That is a 10-fold increase over the 23,000 bushels harvested in 2001. The last time oyster production was as high was in 1989, with more than 272,000 bushels.

For the past four years the Virginia Marine Resource Commission (VRMC) has used a rotational harvest system, sanctuaries and targeted shell plantings on public oyster grounds.
Oyster production typically reached more than 1 million bushels in the 1960s, but two diseases, Dermo and MSX, have spread throughout the Chesapeake Bay. The diseases don’t transfer to humans, but kill oysters when they reach marketable size around three years. In 1998, Virginia’s oyster production reached a low of 20,250 bushels.

“The strides have been remarkable, and indications are this year’s harvest may be the best we’ve seen in 25 years,” said VMRC Commissioner Steven G. Bowman. “It can get even better if we stay the course and continue to spend the funds necessary to maintain our current level or productivity.”

Many efforts have been made to fight the disease, but the plan enacted four years ago appears to be working. The rotational harvest areas mean certain areas are open on a staggered basis for one harvest season and then closed for one or two years to allow the oysters to grow to market size and be harvested before they are killed by the disease.

In addition, the state uses oyster sanctuaries, mid-season monitoring, preseason stock surveys and the planting oyster shells on public oyster grounds to encourage growth of the Virginia oyster production.

Jim Wesson of the VRMC estimates that for every $1 spent by the state to plant oyster shell yields $7 in economic benefits, such as more jobs for oyster shuckers and at oyster packing houses.

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