Virginia oyster harvests continue to soar
“Virginia is the oyster capital of the East Coast,’’ said Governor McAuliffe. “We have seen yet another year of remarkable growth in our oyster industry. Our oysters are delicious, harvested sustainably, and provide good jobs for hard-working Virginia watermen. When it comes to oysters, Virginia is all in.”
Over the past 11 years, the oyster harvest in Virginia has increased from 24,000 bushels in 2003 to an estimated 659,000 bushels last year, according to preliminary harvest reports from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).
This is the highest level seen since 1986 and is 24 percent more than the 533,000 bushels last year and 61 percent more than the 409,000 bushels harvested in 2012.
The dockside value of the oyster harvest increased to $33.8 million last year, up from $22.2 million in 2013.
The ripple effects through the economy from last year’s harvest resulted in an estimated $89 million in economic value, using a multiplier of 2.63 on a dockside value of $33.8 million, a formula established by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
“Our comprehensive fisheries management programs, combined with private-sector investments, are showing excellent results for the Chesapeake Bay, consumers and the economy,” said Molly Joseph Ward, Secretary of Natural Resources.
Preliminary harvest estimates show substantial gains in both wild-caught oysters from public oyster rocks as well as from privately leased water bottoms last year.
In fact, wild harvests off public water bottoms grew from 220,000 bushels in 2013 to 302,000 bushels last year due to very good oyster reproduction several years ago. Natural reproduction is variable and should not be expected to remain at high levels indefinitely.
Harvest growth last year also increased substantially on privately leased water bottoms, where investments from the private sector and a favorable regulatory environment established by the VMRC have been paying off.
Last year’s oyster harvest from privately leased water bottoms continued six years of unabated growth, rising from 60,000 bushels in 2007 to 313,000 bushels in 2013 and 357,000 bushels last year.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission manages the oyster stocks through rotational oyster harvest areas and by spreading fossil oyster shells mined annually from beneath the James River on public oyster grounds in its oyster replenishment program. These fossil shells become home for naturally occurring oyster larvae that attach to them during spawning and grow to form new adult oysters that will reach market size in roughly three years.
This oyster replenishment program provides significant ecological as well as economic benefits. Oyster reefs provide important forage and refuge habitat for invertebrates as well as juvenile crabs and finfish species.
The VMRC also leases water bottoms for the purpose of propagating oysters, manages the use of those “privately leased” state-owned oyster grounds and now has more than 121,000 acres under lease to Virginia citizens and businesses. This is the highest acreage under lease since the 1960s.
“This level of oyster harvest success was virtually inconceivable a decade ago, but we need to be mindful that oysters live in an ever-changing ecosystem and oysters remain susceptible to disease and other environmental factors outside of our control,’’ said VMRC Commissioner John M.R. Bull.
Virginia’s history of oyster harvests can be found here: mrc.state.va.us/SMAC/VA-Oyster-Harvests.pdf.