By John Page Williams/ Chesapeake Bay Magazine
According to an article in the December issue of Chesapeake Magazine by John Page Williams, the Commonwealth of Virginia announces it was the top oyster producer on the East Coast this most recent season.
Virginia watermen and oyster eaters in the 2022-2023 season enjoyed the strongest harvest in 35 years, at more than 700,000 bushels.
The 2023-2024 season is shaping up to be another strong one. Capt. Allen Parks reports from Tangier that he and his fellow Islanders are catching their limits from public harvest grounds in Tangier Sound by mid-morning. Other Eastern Shore oystermen report similar results often being back with their limits long before noon.
Twenty years ago, this level of activity would have seemed like a fairy tale. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, two invasive disease organisms decimated the Chesapeake’s reefs of our native Eastern oysters. Harvests began a dispiriting decline that reached its nadir in 2004, with the combined catch of Virginia and Maryland less than 50,000 bushels. It’s difficult to overstate how devastating this descent became for watermen’s communities, stripping from them their primary source of winter income.
Mother Nature helped as well, with native oysters beginning to develop genetic tolerance for the diseases, first in the Rappahannock and then gradually elsewhere. Virginia invested significantly to complement that trend. The Marine Resources Commission built a vigorous Conservation and Replenishment Program that helped to restore public harvest areas and developed a system of rotational management to allow harvest areas to lie fallow for a period of several years after being fished. Both programs have helped greatly in revival of Virginia’s public fishery.
Also research at the Virginia Intistute of Marine Science in Wachapreague developed a method of feeding oysters raised in aquaculture operations allowing them to grow to market size before the diseases could kill them.
Now, Virginia aquaculture has exploded, with both large-scale investments by companies and development of small-scale operations. In fact, the Virginia Aquaculture Oyster Growers (part of the Virginia Marine Products Board) now list no fewer than 75 individual operations in the waters of the Commonwealth several of which are operated on the Eastern Shore. The local oyster farming operations include but are not limited to the Bloxom aquaculture operation near Assawoman Creek, the Terry Brothers in Willis Wharf, Cherrystone Aquaculture near Cape Charles and the Nandua Oyster operation at Hacks Neck. The 2023 holiday message is clear: enjoy this icon of the Chesapeake raw, roasted, fried, stewed, and any other way you like, but also get involved to help this restoration miracle to continue.
This article was published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine in the December 2023 issue.