Written by Michelle Gayton
Farming out the Chesapeake proves lucrative for Virginia oyster growers
Virginia oyster growers expect another huge sales surge in 2012, as the industry eyes bigger plantings that could bring more shucked product to market, along with single-shell plantings that supply the high-paying half-shell market.
Oyster sales of 23 million shellfish were worth an estimated $6.7 million in 2011. That represents a 38 percent increase from 2010’s 16.9 million shellfish, which were worth an estimated $5.2 million. A Virginia Institute of Marine Science survey reports growers think they can get another 44 percent growth in numbers sold this year, even as the average market price hovers around 30 cents per oyster.
The federal government put in a lot of subsidies for oyster planting to compensate for past Chesapeake Bay fishery failures. And now the industry is splitting private investment efforts between the half-shell and shucked trade, says shellfish aquaculture specialist Karen Hudson, co-author of the institute’s report.
“There’s certainly interest among the larger growers in that spat-on-shell” and how it could bolster the market for shucked oysters, Hudson says.
Also called remote setting, that method introduces oyster larvae with oyster or surf clam shells in circulating tanks on land. With the babies anchored on shells, growers transport the whole assembly to a growing site.
“Historically Virginia has had a very strong market for shucked product, and we still have large shucking companies,” says Mike Oesterling, executive director of the Gloucester, Va.-based trade group Shellfish Growers of Virginia.
The problem has been single-shell oysters can be too expensive — up to 60 cents apiece, according to the institute. But “with the spat-on-shell, growers believe they can get enough,” Oesterling says.
Another advantage is that the volume and clumpy nature of those oysters afford growers some protection against depredations by cownose rays, the scourge of Chesapeake growers, he says.
The mild 2010-11 winter had oyster growers “all waiting for the shoe to drop,” Hudson says, expecting more parasites and pests surviving the winter. But growers reported normal spring and summer conditions, she says.
Virginia oyster plantings declined 14 percent during 2011, but institute researchers say that simply reflects the shift away from single-shell planting to using the spat-on-shell method. Those plantings could be up 10 percent this year according to information growers provided to the institute.
The Northeast industry was rattled in July when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against oysters from New York’s Oyster Bay Harbor on Long Island’s north shore, after an outbreak of the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria.
The oysters were linked to cases of gastrointestinal illness in several states, FDA officials say. Long associated with warmer southern waters, vibrio is becoming an issue in the Mid-Atlantic region as average water temperatures rise. Delaware Bay oystermen now follow protocols for keeping shellfish shaded and cool in transit on the boats, and state health officials monitor for the bacteria.
The Delaware Bay industry got its own shock with the federal criminal convictions of several watermen for violating the Lacey Act by falsifying landings records for $750,000 worth of oysters.
Brothers Tom and Todd Reeves and their company, Shellrock of Port Norris, N.J., were convicted after a weeks-long jury trial. Guilty verdicts came in, too, for Shellrock employee Renee Reeves, the wife of Todd Reeves; Heislerville, N.J., oyster captain Kenneth Bailey; and Mark Bryan, owner of Harbor House Seafood in Seaford, Del.
Bryan’s reopening of a Port Norris shucking house was a boost to the Delaware industry, which is seeing a revival from a massive shell-planting effort to reinvigorate eroded oyster beds. Federal prosecutors last year touted the oyster criminal case as the first in a drive against environmental crimes, and illegal fishing charges were brought in other cases in the South.
— Kirk Moore
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