Virginia oyster harvest continues to improve

Published 1:37 pm Wednesday, November 25, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

Virginia’s oyster harvest is the largest in almost three decades — up 24 percent from last year, according to Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The boost in the harvest has also spurred an increase in the dockside value of oysters — at  $33.8 million last year and up from $22.2 million in 2013.

State officials credit a variety of programs for the hike in the harvest. 

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“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. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Over the past 11 years, the oyster harvest in Virginia 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 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 increased harvest is also having an economic boost.

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.

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.

However, watermen are grappling this year with new regulations, such as no harvesting oysters by hand scraping and dredge on Fridays, as well as catch limits.  

Catches are limited to three licensed waterman on a boat, and each are only allowed eight bushels a day, according to VMRC spokeswoman Laurie Naismith.

The Commission adopted the Friday restriction for the first time for the October through December season, Naismith said.

Hand tonging is still allowed on Fridays, she said, adding that the Friday restriction was enacted as a way to extend the season. 

C.D. Hancock with the Coastal Virginia Waterman’s Association in Hampton said the Friday restriction has really put a dent in the number of bushels that can be harvested.

Watermen are already weather dependent and taking away a day affects their bottomline, he said.

Hancock also doubts the increased population will result in a loosening of restrictions.

“That would be the norm but that’s not going to happen,” Hancock said.

Naismith said the goal of the VMRC is to grow the oyster stock, adding that any new regulations would be considered after the results the annual survey are presented to the Commission in March.

It takes three years to have a successful spat set, Naismith said, referring to the length of time it takes for oyster larvae to grow to market size.

Naismith said growing the oyster population is dependent upon “Mother Nature,” predation and environment.

Hancock doesn’t believe that issues with the oyster population are due to overfishing, but environmental stressors instead — particularly nitrogen and fertilizers.

“It’s obvious there’s something at play,” he said about run off and pointed out that there are fewer watermen working the Bay and its tributaries than in years past. 

“There are a lot of things out of balance,” he said.

Naismith said the VMRC agrees that the oyster population faces multiple challenges beyond overfishing, including predators other than humans, such as the invasive blue catfish. She also points to efforts to cultivate sea grasses and decrease run off through the agreement forged between states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

It will take a comprehensive effort to restore the industry, Naismith said.

In addition to population increases on public rocks, the oyster harvest also increased on privately leased water bottoms.

Last year’s oyster harvest from privately leased water bottoms continued six years of 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.

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.

The last time the oyster harvest exceeded one million bushels was in 1971-72. {/mprestriction}