Virginia continued to see record gains in aquaculture for 2014, with a combined $55.9 million worth of oysters and clams sold in the state.
Oysters, which have been on the rise in the state over the past decade, increased 33 percent. Clams, which have suffered from a market glut and lower prices in past years, were up 14 percent.
“It’s all-around good news for the industry,” said Karen Hudson, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. She co-authored the “2014 Virginia Shellfish Aquaculture Situation and Outlook Report.”
The numbers are astonishing, especially considering that just a decade ago, in 2005, Virginia had sold only about a million farm-raised oysters. In 2014 that number jumped to 39.8 million. Likewise, in 2005, Virginia farmers planted about 5 million oysters. In 2014, they planted 107 million. Hudson and the survey authors predict it will increase another 26 percent next year.
Oyster farms line Virginia’s shore, from the Northern and Middle Neck peninsulas on the Western Shore to the Eastern Shore. Fueling the industry are five private hatcheries, which spawn oysters using new techniques that make the animals resistant to disease. Many of the oyster farms use intensive aquaculture techniques to grow oysters for the half-shell market. They raise single oysters on a small piece of shell and place them in bags or cages.
“We’re growing like a weed, as a matter of fact,” said Matt McShane, owner of the Great Wicomico Oyster Co. on Virginia’s Northern Neck. The former software executive started the farm with his sister a few years ago and now grows a million oysters a year. In just the last three months, McShane said, they have doubled in size. He is planning to hire more employees.
The game-changer for Virginia has been the triploid oyster, a sterile, native bivalve that can grow to market size in as little as a year, much faster than a reproductive-capable diploid oyster, which takes about three years. Stan Allen, an oyster geneticist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, began developing the modern triploid oyster about 12 years ago to use in comparison trials with an Asian oyster species that Virginia hoped to introduce. Over time, the sterile native oysters proved a better species for the Chesapeake. Other states did not object to their introduction, either, as they were native.
Since then, hatcheries have honed breeding techniques and developed triploids that are even more disease-resistant and grow faster.
McShane grows triploids and diploids. The diploids, he said, are for restoration purposes, though the company sells them after about two and a half years. They’re marketed as Bay Savers, or Strikers, and McShane said their presence in his river has brought many baby oysters that will grow on their own.
Jim Wesson, oyster research manager for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said oysters are heading to where clams are today, but are 15 years behind. A few decades ago, he said, Virginia had 30 million to 40 million clams in the wild, and very few in aquaculture. Today, he said, the wild clam harvest is about 1 million, and clam aquaculture is at 250 million. Virginia leads the nation in clam production.
“The thing about aquaculture is that it’s predictable,” Wesson said. “For the wild fishery, you are always dependent on natural spat sets.”
In addition to Hudson’s report, which focused on farm-raised oysters, Virginia’s private and public beds had record years. This type of growing is referred to as extensive aquaculture, and is largely the spat-on-shell crop for the shucking market.
In 2014, Virginia’s extensive aquaculture yielded 500,000 bushels. About 200,000 of that was wild fishery; the rest were private grounds that Virginians lease from the government.
In addition to the triploids and the hatcheries, Virginia has enjoyed some other advantages. A favorable regulatory structure allows farmers to obtain a lease in about three months. With saltier water, oysters grow more quickly than they can in Maryland.
The price of oysters has hovered near $50 a bushel for most of 2015, and oyster farmers have reported that they’re selling every oyster they have. According to the recent aquaculture report, 86 percent of the oysters are going out of state. McShane’s oysters travel as far as Las Vegas.
Part of the reason for the high prices stems from problems in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly Louisiana, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. To dilute the oil, Louisiana diverted freshwater into the gulf. The flushing made the water too fresh for growth. Another part of the growth, though, has been a change in tastes. Young people, Wesson said, are eating oysters again. Raw bars in Baltimore, Richmond and Washington are filled with the under-35 crowd, drinking beer and slurping oysters at a dollar a shuck (buck-a-shuck specials). More affluent diners will spend $12 or $15 on an appetizer of six oysters at a fine restaurant.
Wesson said he wants to keep Virginia’s growth going. In 2014, aquaculture provided 226 jobs, nearly 100 of them full-time. Many are in towns that once had a robust wild harvest of clams and oysters, but have seen those jobs leave.
“You don’t see young people coming into the wild fishery,” Wesson said. “But you do see them getting
into aquaculture. Those who see it as a job are staying in it. These are good, rural jobs.”