Virginia & Maryland Oysters On the Rise

2012-2013 Oyster Harvest Up Nearly 60 percent

Watermen off Tangier Island
Watermen off Tangier Island

It’s been nearly 30 years since Virginia watermen have raked in as many oysters as last season.

The new season began October 1st and the Virginia governor’s office has released the previous season’s totals. “We had high expectations for the oyster harvest, but this is substantially better than we dared to hope,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commission Commissioner Jack Travelstead.

The 2012-2013 harvest was an estimated 406,000 bushels, 60 percent higher than the previous season’s 257,000 bushels. That includes wild oysters and farm-raised in aquaculture operations on privately leased water bottoms in the Cheseapeake Bay as well as it’s rivers and tributaries.

To break it down, 149,000 bushels were harvested from public oyster grounds and another 257,000 bushels were harvested from privately leased oyster grounds. Combined, that’s a dockside value of more than $16.2 million last year, according to the state.

“Good management has allowed us to put Virginia’s exceptional oysters on dinner plates around the world,” said Governor Bob McDonnell, “creating good jobs, and generating new revenue for our state.”

Virginia credits the increase to a multi-approach: oyster restoration where empty oyster shells are dumped on state-owned public grounds to give oyster larvae something to attach to, good weather avoiding storm run-off and too much fresh water into the bay, and leasing water areas for privately-run oyster farms.

Maryland’s latest report, released in August, shows a three-fold increase in bushels of oysters harvested, the sixth highest amount since 1985, when disease knocked oyster harvests for a loop. Just when the critters were on the rebound, they got hit again by disease in 2002 killing 58% of the oysters. Last season, only 5% were found to be in bad health.

Oysters become more likely to survive disease when they have plenty of flowing saline water. They can be wiped out by too much fresh water caused by lots of rain along the Chesapeake Bay and north into Pennsylvania and New York state (the Chesapeake watershed). That happened in in 2011, when two late summer tropical storms combined with the already high spring rains causing fresh water flowing into the Bay to surpass the 75-year average by 74%.

But 2011 was an exception. The needed saltiness has been about normal for the past eight years.Ironically, Hurricane Sandy didn’t dump much fresh water into the Bay; its rains mainly covered the Atlantic Coast.

Oysters need about three years to grow into harvest size. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources reported a “strong 2010-year class” of baby oysters, meaning the current season should be strong. Although still a fraction of what it was in the 1970s. Which means the price of oysters is staying high. And that’s why many watermen report they’re pulling in only a small number compared to back-in-the-day despite state reports showing increases.

Maryland’s six-month oyster season began November 1st,  a month after Virginia’s. The state of Maryland found oystering was better on the Eastern shore than Western shore. But the best oyster harvests were in the Pocomoke/Tangier Sound region (especially around the Manokin River), as well as in the Choptank River tributaries of Broad and Harris Creeks, the lower Patuxent River, and the upper St. Mary’s River. Worst areas were in the upper bay and upper reaches of the Potomac and Chester Rivers.

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