Oysters continue comeback
by Larry S. Chowning
The news is good! Virginia oysters appear to be making a formidable comeback.
Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) public relations director John Bull noted that last year 236,000 bushels were harvested commercially from the Virginia portion of Chesapeake Bay. This year there are indications the harvest will be over 250,000 bushels.
This compares to only 23,000 bushels 10 years ago. “Those were the dark days,” said Bull.
Bull said the increased harvest is due to three factors.
First, VMRC instituted a rotational harvesting system on the Rappahannock River and on Tangier Sound four years ago. Two areas are opened and then they are closed for two years, two more new grounds are opened the following year. “It has worked so well that as of October we have started rotating grounds on the York River and Mobjack Bay,” said Bull.
The second factor is that oysters appear to be becoming resistant to MSX and Dermo. In the 1980s, these diseases killed tens of thousands of oysters ready to be harvested.
“It is preliminary science so we are not totally sure that oysters are becoming more resistant,” he said. “The proof, though, is in the pudding over the long term, and that will be the real scientific indicator.
“We are very cautious about this. It might be a minor spike,” continued Bull. “The disease may come back with a vengeance if there is a change in climate or water conditions. We just don’t know.”
The third factor has been growth of Virginia’s aquaculture industry, he said. “The success we are seeing in oyster farming is because we already had the system in place to lease grounds to oyster farmers.”
In the early 1890s, Virginia officials hired Lt. James Bowen Baylor of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey to survey 143,000 acres of public oyster grounds and set aside 110,000 acres as private oyster grounds to promote oyster farming.
The state of Maryland has very little private oyster grounds on the books and this has hindered the growth of private oyster growing in that state, noted Bull.
“Maryland is now trying to get up to speed to match Virginia’s ability to have private growers work the bay,” he said.
“We are ahead of Maryland by a century, and that doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “We are delighted to report the good news. This is a win-win situation. Oysters are a natural way to clean up the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
“There are more oysters in the water, which means cleaner water. There are more oysters for watermen to harvest and they are happy making money. And there are more oysters for consumers. We have an excellent product in Virginia. It is a win-win-win situation,” said Bull.