Chesapeake Bay oysters are proliferating nicely. Virginia reports a 25-percent increase in oyster harvests last year, the biggest harvest in 26 years. Numbers are up for wild-caught oysters, those harvested from public oyster rock and on privately-leased bottoms.
“State investments in our oyster replenishment program are showing positive results,” says Molly Joseph Ward, Secretary of Natural Resources. “Keeping this momentum is vital to the growth of the oyster industry.”
The dockside value of the oyster harvest increased to $22.2 million last year, up from $16.2 million in 2012.
Virginia’s oyster harvest has increased regularly for the past 12 years. Virginia oystermen scooped-up 504,000 bushels of oysters in 2013. (The yearly numbers are broken down here.)
The trend is similar in Maryland. Preliminary reports for 2013 showed more than 400,000 bushels harvested, the highest in 15 years. Virginia and Maryland have slightly different oyster seasons.
Chesapeake Bay oysters have been at less than one-percent of historic levels since 1994. And in 2011, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researchers concluded that Maryland’s oyster population was just 0.3 percent of its abundance in the early 1800s. They report the decline was due to heavy fishing pressure beginning in the late 1800s, oyster disease mortalities, and the depletion of oyster habitat.
Oyster habitat had declined 80-percent over the past 30 years, dropping Maryland’s oyster harvest from about 1.5 million bushels a year to an average of 142,000.
Both states have made oyster recovery a priority. They now monitor disease and other issues which impact the Bay’s oysters. And as a result, Virginia increased its oyster harvest from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to an estimated 504,000 last year.
“We are making tremendous progress,’’ said Virginia Marine Resources Commission Commissioner John M.R. Bull. “But oysters are still susceptible to disease and other environmental factors outside of our control. A lot of people have put a lot of work into getting Virginia into this position and it is paying dividends. It is worth celebrating, but we need to keep in mind that oysters live in a dynamic, ever-changing ecosystem.”
The Maryland oyster season ended March 31 and the new season doesn’t start until October 1. Virginia hasn’t set its 2013-2014 season yet.