NEWPORT NEWS – Governor Bob McDonnell announced today that Virginia’s oyster harvest has skyrocketed over the past decade, a boom fueled through the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s use of a rotational harvest system, sanctuaries and targeted shell plantings on public oyster grounds. Over the past decade, the oyster harvest in Virginia has increased ten-fold, from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 236,000 bushels in 2011. In that time, the dockside value of the oyster harvest increased from $575,000 to $8.26 million. In fact, last year’s oyster harvest in Virginia was the largest since 1989.
Speaking about the growth in the harvest, the Governor noted:
Virginia oysters are not only delicious, they are also profitable. Our oysters are hitting tables all across the nation and the world, on the half-shell, fried, steamed, roasted and in stew. Whether they be Stingrays, Chincoteagues, Lynnhavens, or any kind of Virginia oyster, they are in demand. The incredible growth in our oyster harvests is bringing in new revenue to the state, and creating new jobs for our citizens. I applaud the actions of previous gubernatorial Administrations which have helped Virginia oysters to make such a vigorous comeback, and we are committed to furthering the growth of this local industry in the years ahead. And, I would also note, nothing goes better with a half-dozen Virginia oysters on the half-shell than a glass of Virginia Viognier, the signature white wine of the Commonwealth.
“The strides made 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 of productivity.”
That harvest level remains a far cry from the 1960s, when annual harvests of more than 1 million were commonplace. That was before two diseases, Dermo and MSX, spread throughout the Chesapeake Bay. The diseases do not harm humans, but kill oysters when they reach market size, around three years of age.
Over the decades, VMRC tried numerous approaches to combat the affect of those diseases on the oyster harvest and oyster stocks, with little to no success. But a new management scheme enacted four years ago has shown some impressive results.
Some harvest areas have been put on rotational management plans. They work like this: Harvest areas are opened on a staggered basis for one harvest season then closed for one or two years in order to give oysters a chance in those areas to grow to market size. Individual harvest area openings are staggered on a two or three year rotational basis. This allows harvests in some areas while others remain closed so the oyster stocks can regenerate and be reopened later, in time to harvest the market-sized stocks before the diseases kill them.
Combined with annual pre-season stock surveys, permanent oyster sanctuaries to act as broodstock, mid-season monitoring with stock updates as necessary, and planting oyster shells on public oyster grounds with available state funds, this proactive oyster management regime is paying off.
VMRC’s Dr. Jim Wesson estimates every $1 spent by the state to plant oyster shell yields $7 in economic benefits in the form of larger harvests, and increased jobs for oyster shuckers and oyster packing houses.
Over the past four years of rotational harvests, the harvest off public oyster grounds has almost tripled, from 36,000 bushels to 99,000 bushels last year.
In that time, the total oyster harvest – including privately leased oyster grounds and oyster farming operations – has grown from 95,000 bushels in 2008 to 236,000 bushels in 2011. That’s an increase in dockside value from $3.5 million to $8.26 million in just the past four years.
The ripple effects through the economy from last year’s harvest resulted in roughly $22 million in economic value, using a multiplier of 2.63 on a dockside value of $8.26 million, a formula established by Virginia Institute of Marine Science seafood industry economist Dr. James Kirkley.
“This oyster management plan is working,” said Kim Huskey, Executive Director of the Virginia Seafood Council. “This shows the fantastic results that can be achieved with VMRC and the seafood industry working together. For every $1 the state allocates to shell planting on public oyster grounds, $7 in economic benefits accrue. Last year’s harvest resulted in an economic impact of $22 million. This means jobs and economic benefits for Virginia. And it can get even better in the years to come.”