Farmed oyster sales up 34% in Virginia

8/02/2011 9:19:47 AM

Virginia’s oyster aquaculture industry continued to expand rapidly last year as farmers reported a 34 percent increase in sales of the Chesapeake Bay delicacy.

Farmers sold a record 16.9 million oysters in 2010, according to a new report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. That’s up from 12.6 million in 2009 and 20 times the 800,000 sold in 2005.

The expansion is due to the development of a fast-growing, disease-resistant oyster seed that is sold by several hatcheries on the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. Also, farmers have adopted more sophisticated practices, including placing oysters in cages and floats that protect the mollusks from predators.

“Oysters are looking pretty good,” said Thomas Murray, a seafood economist at VIMS who co-wrote the report.

Murray expects sales will climb an additional 74 percent this year. The reason: farmers planted a record 77 million oysters — up from 28 million in 2009 — last year.

The sharp increase coincided with a massive oil spill that killed 11 people and closed oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. The seafood industry estimates the gulf typically produces two-thirds of the nation’s oysters.

“The BP oil spill really drove up demand,” said John Vigliotta, owner of Mobjack Bay Seafood in Gloucester County.

Vigliotta expects robust sales the next few years but he said the market may eventually become saturated. At that point, the number of oysters planted and prices would decline, he said.

The trend would follow what’s happening in Virginia’s other shellfish-growing industry: clams. Centered on the Eastern Shore, farmers planted 371 million clams in 2010, a 12 percent dip from the year before. It is the third consecutive year that plantings declined.

The decrease is mainly due to a glut of clams on the market but there are other factors, Vigliotta said, such as clam farmers turning to oysters, which sell for twice as much as clams.

Despite the oyster market’s growth, employment is essentially flat. Farmers reported 81 full-time jobs in 2010, up eight from the year before. Vigliotta said the numbers surprised him because his workforce has expanded by 50 percent.

The employment numbers may be flawed, Murray said.

The report comes as the Virginia Marine Resources Commission considers reducing the number of bushels of wild oysters that watermen can harvest daily when the public season kicks off this fall. James Wesson, who leads the VMRC’s oyster restoration efforts, said the state’s public oyster reefs aren’t as healthy as the previous few years.

It also comes as waterfront property owners continue to clash with oyster farmers. The commission last week rejected plans for what would have been among the state’s largest farms in a tributary of the Poquoson River.

Commissioners said the proposed farm was in a bad spot because it abutted a suburban neighborhood and conflicted with recreational boaters.

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