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Why Virginia is the Top Oyster Producer on the East Coast

Oysters have been harvested in Virginia for more than 400 years. However, in recent decades, disease, overharvest, pollution, and environmental factors have caused a decline. That is changing, and the luster is being restored to the pearl that oysters are to Virginia’s economy and heritage.

Due to restoration efforts, Virginia is now the top oyster producer on the east coast. Roughly 300,000 bushels were harvested in Virginia waters in 2023. That is more oysters harvested in the commonwealth than in any year since the 1980s.

The rebound of the oyster industry can be credited, in part, to a program of aquaculture and resource management.

“We’ve got one of the best aquaculture industries in the country, really,” said Captain Chris Ludford of Pleasure House Oysters. “Now, Virginia is exporting oysters for the first time in probably 30 years.”

Ludford farms and harvests oysters in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach.

The success is happening because of advanced oyster farming techniques developed in Virginia. Those farmed oysters fill in the gap in demand and allow wild populations to rebound. As a result, wild and farmed populations are thriving. A system is used that bears a strong resemblance to crop rotation.

“The state, they’ve divided up the areas where the wild harvest comes from; they call it public harvest, but it really is licensed watermen, and they take those three areas, and two of them, you don’t mess with this winter,” Ludford said. “We’ll be in one area this winter, and then next winter that area will go out of production.”

That rotation keeps harvests focused and allows oysters in other areas to grow undisturbed. Farmed oysters are also collected to meet the demand. Virginia oyster sales total roughly $60 million.

While harvest management plays a huge role, so does long range planning. Wildlife and aquaculture managers are always looking at growth and forecast two to three seasons ahead. That allows them to make adjustments to ensure good numbers.

So, what is the outlook for the year ahead?

Ludford had the answer: “Between the aquaculture industry, which is extremely healthy and thriving, and then a good wild market and a good wild production, we’re set for another good winter, and a lot of people are looking forward to it.”

Source: 59 News