In Chesapeake Bay watershed, oysters bounce back

Harvest extensions could help top over 300,000 bushels for the first time since the 1980s

By: - March 8, 2023 12:04 am

Oysters waiting to be shucked at Rappahannock Oyster Company in Richmond. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission recently approved a harvest increase for oysters following the resurgence of the species, one bright spot in a recent report on the current health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Commission granted an extension of the oyster harvesting season by 10 business days, to March 14 for hand scraping methods at Tangier Sound, Black Berry Hangs, Great Wicomico, Rappahannock River Area 1, Deep Rock and the York River. The extension also applies to tong-harvesting areas set to close March 31.

The extensions follow a month-long extension granted by VMRC in January to hand scraping-allowed portions of the James, Rappahannock and Mobjack/York rivers and a month-and-a-half extension of some tong-use areas.

The extensions mean that oyster harvesting could top over 300,000 bushels for the first time since the species was decimated in the late 1980s following disease and consumption by predators, which include blue crabs. Public harvest did not exceed 200,000 bushels for 25 years after the 1987-88 season, according to a VMRC staff memo.

“This is what we’ve all been hoping for in terms of seeing a resurgence, in terms of our oyster research,” said Chris Moore, a senior regional ecosystem scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

VMRC Deputy Chief of Shellfish Management Andrew Button added, “It’s a lot of hard work that is coming into fruition.”

The resurgence of the species can largely be attributed to natural selection leading to a stronger vitality of oysters, after the diseases MSX and dermo wiped out weaker ones, Button explained.

Oyster population increases can also be attributed to partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to plant oyster shells  in waterways,, which baby oysters can attach to and turn into spat, Moore said. Replanting shells, along with less cumulative rainfall in recent years – despite the more intense, shorter rain spouts that have hit the region – have increased waterways’ salinity, which spat thrives in, Moore said. 

We’ve had really good spat sets in recent years,” Moore said.

The harvesting season extensions are a “cautious” approach to increase oyster harvesting, a multi-billion industry in the state that can generate $500,000 to $700,000 in sales per week alongside the dock, Button said. 

“The oyster fishery is the largest economic contributory to a Virginia Seafood Industry, which is valued at over $1 billion annually,” according to a VMRC oyster replenishment and restoration plan.

That cautious approach includes extending the season for the hand scraping technique – a more efficient way to harvest oysters through small dredging efforts – to certain areas, while the less-efficient hand tong collection extension applies to others.

“Not consolidating a [technique] to a single location helps spread that harvest pressure [for] less of an impact,” Button said. “We try to have a consistent catch.”

Despite noting the increase in oysters populating the Chesapeake watershed, the Bay Foundation’s biennial State of the Bay report gave the species an “F” grade while encouraging cautious harvesting and habitat restoration to maintain their growth.

This  legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that would provide funding to those who donate used oyster shells to create healthy environments for oysters. The initial form of the legislation sought to provide the monetary incentive through a tax credit, but backers of the idea opted to use a more straightforward grant mechanism before sending the bill in its final form to the desk of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“The Chesapeake oyster is still in the very early stages of a comeback after a tremendous amount of investment in reducing pollution to the Bay, years of diligent fishery management, and significant successful state and federal investment in oyster restoration,” Moore said in a statement following the approval of VMRC’s extensions. “To keep oyster numbers growing, harvest increases must continue to be done slowly, incrementally, and cautiously, as VMRC staff recommends.” 

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.