Virginia and Maryland officials recently gave welcome news for everyone concerned with the fate of the iconic bivalve, a once abundant and precious resource that helped shape the identities of the states and provided a way of life for watermen.
Virginia harvested only 79,600 bushels of oysters in 2005 but racked up about 236,200 last year, the most since 1989. Maryland had only 26,400 bushels in 2005 but hauled in 121,200 last year.
More than half of Virginia’s increase came from private aquaculture. Officials in both states said the fall stock surveys that assess the population also were promising last year.
Virginia’s oyster population has been in a slow upswing recently because of better management of the fishery, said James A. Wesson, director of conservation and replenishment for the state’s fishery division. But the overall population baywide still represents less than 1 percent of its historic numbers.
“It’s good news,” said Mike Naylor, director of the shellfish program for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “But don’t get excited.”
When Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) announced the recovery in a statement last month, his words suggested excitement. Virginia’s oysters are “delicious” and “profitable,” he said, “hitting tables across the nation and the world on the half-shell, fried, steamed, roasted in a stew.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) noted in his remarks about the same time that the state’s oyster survey showed the highest survival rate since 1985 — 92 percent — a sign that “our continued commitment to renewing this iconic species has begun to pay off,” even though the patient’s health still doesn’t look all that good.
The states have taken different paths in their efforts to save oysters from pollution, harvesting and disease.
Virginia protects oysters with large sanctuaries in public waters such as the Rappahannock River but allows watermen to harvest them on a rotating basis about every two years. The state also strongly encourages private aquaculture, selling plots of riverbed or bay floor to oyster farmers for $1.50 an acre. A total of 93,000 acres of water bottom is leased for farming. Virginia’s aquaculture tradition goes back decades, but large -scale farming is about 10 years old.
Maryland has poured $50 million into its oyster recovery effort over the past 16 years, with little to show for the investment. Now the state forbids oyster harvesting on a quarter of its reefs, protecting them with a fine of up to $25,000 and 15 years in prison. Maryland is only beginning to develop aquaculture. Since state lawmakers passed a law to allow oyster farming in 2009, 30 applications for the practice have been approved, Naylor said.