Virginia’s oyster industry squeaks through the pandemic

By: - June 23, 2021 12:02 am

Oysters at Rappahannock Oyster Company in Richmond. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Don’t break out the champagne to go with those oysters — at least not just yet. 

Virginia’s oyster industry, the largest on the East Coast, has survived the pandemic, but growers and producers throughout the commonwealth’s eight oyster regions are still facing a long road to recovery, industry representatives said. 

After decades of overharvesting throughout the Chesapeake Bay region, Virginia oysters underwent a renaissance in the first decade of the 21st century. The state has poured millions into oyster restoration and reef construction, not only because of the centuries-old industry’s economic potential, but also because oysters provide some of the most effective filtration of sediments and algae from bay waters. 

The appearance of COVID-19 in the U.S. in late winter 2020, though, ground the industry to a halt

“When the emergencies all began being declared last March, within one or two days, oyster companies saw their sales drop by 95 to 99 percent. It was pretty devastating,” said Mike Oesterling, executive director of Shellfish Growers of Virginia, a trade group representing the commonwealth’s clam and oyster farmers. “The pandemic really highlighted how heavily the oyster aquaculture industry really relies on people going out to eat oysters.” 

Now, as restrictions lift, lockdown-weary Virginians eager to get out and celebrate are flocking to restaurants. 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring, and Gov. Ralph Northam talk to Rappahannock Oyster Company co-owner Travis Croxton about oysters and the COVID-19 pandemic in Richmond in June 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

But the situation is still “a mixed bag,” said Tanner Council, manager of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, an initiative created by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that counts some 70 oyster growers, nonprofits and academic institutions among its ranks.

Some growers are seeing a decided upturn in business.

“Sales are pretty much where they were” before the pandemic, Travis Croxton, co-owner of Rappahannock Oyster Company, told Gov. Ralph Northam June 15 as state officials gathered at the company’s Richmond restaurant in honor of Agriculture Week. And in Machipongo on the Chesapeake Bay side of the Eastern Shore, Lambert Shellfish recently sold out of all its market-sized oysters, co-owner Alex Lambert told the Mercury. 

Others, however, are seeing a slower or more uneven recovery. 

“I hadn’t planned on slowing down,” said Tommy Leggett of York River Oysters. “The pandemic just knocked the wind out of my sails.” 

Over the past 15 months, oyster growers and distributors have tried a range of strategies to stay afloat. 

Many ventured into direct-to-consumer sales, revamping their websites and setting up online platforms for orders. Others, bolstered by groups like the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance and the Virginia Shellfish Growers, turned to pop-ups, where growers set up temporary pickup locations for customers in different regions to collect their bivalves. Leggett got into the farmer’s market game, setting up a booth at a weekly market established in Toano after Williamsburg paused its long-running event. 

The state also stepped in. The Virginia Tourism Corporation promoted local oyster companies, while the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helped market Virginia oysters to Wegmans stores, said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. 

(Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Oysters year-round

You may remember that old rule of thumb handed down by your grandmother: Only eat oysters in months with ‘r’ in their name. But growers and Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring say that’s an artifact of a different time and advice that no longer needs to be followed. Tanner Council of the Virginia Oyster Alliance pointed out that most oysters raised by farmers today are “triploid,” a genetically altered type of oyster that is sterile and doesn’t undergo the reproductive changes that make them unpalatable in summer. Instead, “they’re just pumping and filtering and getting bigger and fatter and nicer all the time,” he said.

Not all of the outcomes were ideal. Many growers, faced with a 2020 crop of oysters that had reached the sweet spot for size and were taking up valuable reef space, were forced to sell their shellfish for reduced prices or to shucking houses where they would be canned for sale. 

“Others just kind of sat on them and did the best they could in moving them wherever they could,” said Oesterling. “What they didn’t do is buy new seed, buy new gear, buy new equipment. It kind of put a hold on the whole supply chain.” 

Still, few businesses shuttered completely, whether because their owners managed to pivot or because many maintained second jobs on which they could rely during lean months. 

“I think the people in Virginia are hanging on. I haven’t heard of many established businesses like myself that have closed their doors,” said Leggett. 

Conditions are improving. On May 28, Northam lifted all restrictions on restaurants, and several growers reported rising demand. 

Other problems have emerged, however. Both Leggett and Oesterling pointed to staffing shortfalls faced by many restaurants and oyster processors as a new limitation on how much business growers can do. 

“The market started to loosen up a bit, and then all of a sudden we have labor shortages in the restaurant industry. We have labor shortages on the farms,” said Oesterling. 

Andrew Button of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission added one caveat: “Labor shortages have been the largest complaint I have heard personally, but this was a trend prior to COVID as well,” he wrote in an email.

Lambert, though, remains optimistic. The Machipongo company was still in its infancy when COVID-19 took off, and it’s grown over the course of the last 15 months. Today Lambert Shellfish is selling to suppliers and wholesalers in New York and Virginia Beach, and has plans to roughly double the amount of oyster seed it starts this year. 

“I think demand is going to go through the roof,” he said. “Folks (are) wanting to go out and splurge a little bit, I guess.” 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.