Virginia aquaculture flounders during COVID-19 shutdowns

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Virginia’s seafood producers are trying to keep their heads above water during the COVID-19 shutdowns, but it feels a little like swimming upstream.

“The pandemic has had a major impact on our sales,” said Heather Lusk, vice president of shellfish company H.M. Terry Co. in Northampton County and a member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Aquaculture Advisory Committee. “The summer months are generally big months for us, but our sales are about half of what we would normally expect this time of year.”

Lusk’s sales are primarily wholesale, so when restaurants closed, the sales tanked. Most Americans consume seafood at restaurants.

The Virginia Tech Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center and The Ohio State University Extension are conducting surveys of U.S. aquaculture, aquaponics and allied businesses to determine how the pandemic is affecting the industry. First-quarter survey results for aquaculture in the Southern aquaculture region revealed an alarming 93% of farms have been adversely affected.

Ninety percent indicated they lost sales due to the pandemic, and 84% have had orders or contracts canceled.

Like many farmers, seafood growers are cultivating perishable products.

“While our product won’t spoil if we don’t harvest it, anything we leave out in the water is at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Lusk said. “As we approach hurricane season, the risk is even higher.”

Some seafood producers went online to help increase sales. Kyle Sturgis, also a member of VFBF’s aquaculture committee, raises clams as part of an aquaculture co-op with Cherrystone Aqua-Farms. He said Cherrystone was selling mostly wholesale as well, but once the pandemic hit, the company began online and direct-to-consumer sales.

“I also have friends in the business that grow clams and oysters. They’re branching out from the Hampton Roads area and are now selling in the Richmond area,” Sturgis said.

Both Lusk and Sturgis are eager for better times ahead. Sturgis said he anticipates business picking up around the Fourth of July, as harvesting increases around the summer holidays.

“Optimistically, we are hoping for an increase in consumer confidence and more people going out to eat,” Lusk said. “If the re-opening is successful, then Virginia’s aquaculture industry will hopefully rebound accordingly.”


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