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Value of Virginia aquaculture reaches all-time high

  • Oyster shells
    Oyster shells  Young oysters prefer to settle on oyster shells like these.  Photo by Carly Rose/VASG
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Virginia’s shellfish growers sold an estimated 31 million single oysters and 214.4 million clams in 2013 for a farm-gate value of $45.1 million, an all-time high. That's according to a survey of shellfish aquaculture conducted by William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Virginia Sea Grant.

The survey numbers represent a 10% increase in oyster sales and a 25% increase in clam sales since 2012. While the increase in oyster sales continues a long-term trend of growth, the increase in clam sales represents year-to-year variation in a steady industry.

The report’s authors, Karen Hudson and Tom Murray of the Marine Advisory Services program at VIMS, say that this year’s report shows that the shellfish industry is healthy. Says Murray, “the increase in oyster sales documents what has become a long-term growth trend, while the recent increase in clam sales reflects more typical annual variability of a more mature agricultural industry.”

Hatchery production remains critical to the continued growth of both intensive and extensive oyster aquaculture. Hudson says that the industry is taking proactive steps to improve hatchery operations to supply the demand for young oysters that can grow out into marketable adults.

“There’s been a concerted effort by hatcheries and scientists to work together to ensure consistent production in the face of ever-changing environmental conditions,” says Hudson. This effort comes in response to water-quality issues that hampered production in 2011. Since then, says Hudson, all indicators for continued growth of oyster aquaculture and consistent production in clams remain positive for the future.

In intensive culture, growers plant individual oysters in containers such as off-bottom cages, then carefully tend them for harvest in the half-shell market. In extensive culture, growers allow oyster larvae to settle on old oyster shells in large tanks, plant the resulting spat in the field almost immediately, and then allow them to grow freely on the bottom into clumps of oysters that are harvested for sale as shucked meat.

The “Virginia Shellfish Aquaculture Situation and Outlook Report” has been produced annually since 2005. The 2013 results are drawn from 80 completed surveys returned to VIMS. Respondents include 21 clam  growers, 67 oyster growers, 15 clam and oyster growers, and 5 shellfish hatcheries.