Virginia's oyster harvest up tenfold in past decade to 236,000 bushels worth US$8.2M in 2011, state officials say

NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia , February 8, 2012 () – Virginia's oyster harvest has grown tenfold in the past decade to 236,000 bushels in 2011 and a dockside value of $8.2 million, state officials announced Tuesday.

Gov. Bob McDonnell credited the rebound to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and its promotion of sanctuaries, targeted shell plantings in public oyster grounds and other measures.

"Virginia oysters are not only delicious, they are also profitable," McDonnell said in a statement. "Our oysters are hitting tables all across the nation and the world, on the half-shell, fried, steamed, roasted and in stew."

In their heyday, oyster reefs were so thick in the bay some likened the catch industry to a mining operation rather than a commercial fishery. While improving, the harvest is still puny compared to historic highs in the 1950s and 1960s when Virginia's oyster harvest peaked at 4 million bushels in 1958-59 and remained near or above 1 million bushels into the 1970s, then steadily declined through the decades.

The Chesapeake Bay's current oyster population is a single-digit percentage of historic highs.

One strategy promoted by the Marine Resources Commission includes a rotational harvest system. Under this system, harvest areas are opened on a staggered basis that allows oyster stocks to regenerate and be ready for harvest before disease strikes.

The two diseases — Dermo and MSX — do not harm humans but kill oysters when they reach market size at age 3.

"The strides made have been remarkable and indications are this year's harvest may be the best we've seen in 25 years," said Steven G. Bowman, commissioner of the Marine Resources Commission.

Oysters are harvested from the Potomac River and its tributaries down through the bay along the coast, in tidal rivers and into Atlantic waters.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has promoted the estuary's restoration throughout decades of official neglect, said the positive harvest results underscore the huge economic value of a healthy bay.

"To continue to grow Virginia's economy and create jobs, it is critical that the commonwealth continue efforts to restore oysters and to improve water quality in the bay and its rivers," said Tommy Leggett, the foundation's Virginia oyster restoration specialist. "Bay and oyster restoration have never been so timely or important."

The Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing the six-state and the District of Columbia cleanup of the bay, which involves reducing the flow of oxygen-starving nutrients and other pollutants into its waters that have created vast dead zones.

While the value of oysters delivered to docks tops $8 million, the total economic impact is actually $22 million, based in part on increased jobs for oyster shuckers and packing houses, according to a formula established by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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