RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Marine Resources Commission extended Virginia’s oyster season due to what could be the largest harvest in 35 years. This season’s harvest could top 300,000 bushels, the highest number since the 1987-1988 season.
Oyster season is being extended by two weeks in March and April in portions of Virginia waterways where the oyster population is high. This comes in addition to the season extension Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) approved in January for parts of the James and Rappahannock Rivers.
After the bountiful harvest of the late 80s, Virginia’s oyster fishery crashed due to overharvesting and disease. Now, the oyster harvest is showing signs of recovery. VMRC is recommending harvesters be conservative when increasing harvest amounts to avoid curtailing long-term recovery.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also took note of record years for oyster reproduction in Virginia and Maryland. Oysters also saw lower mortality from disease and predators. Similar to VMRC, though, CBF cautioned against hasty harvesting.
The oyster season varies by area, but typically it lasts between fall and early spring, ending in March. This year’s season will extend into April.
According to Chris Moore, a senior regional ecosystem scientist with Chesapeake Bay Foundation, oysters are culturally and economically significant in Virginia. Many communities financially benefit from the harvest. Local restaurants and delicacies also rely on the availability of oysters.
Oysters are not only a delicacy, but they also play a major role in the ecosystem. Oysters are a keystone species that provide habitat for fish, crabs and worms. According to Chesapeake Bay Foundation, oysters are filter feeders that remove light-blocking algae from the water and remove excess nutrients. This improved the overall water quality.
In previous years, Chesapeake waters suffered due to oyster overharvesting and disease. Oysters were harvested faster than they could reproduce. This caused a loss of habitat for other creatures and a decrease in water quality. Diseases like MSX were introduced which caused the further increased mortality rate of oysters.
The oyster harvest was at its lowest in the 70s and 80s, according to Moore, with harvests of around 20,000 bushels a year. Since then, the CBF has worked to improve water quality and restore oyster populations.
“We’re in a good place now. But we still have to remember that oysters are still a fraction of what they were historical,” Moore said.
The balance between harvesting oysters and ensuring there are enough in the water is vital to the health of the Bay. This will ensure that populations remain stable in the face of environmental stressors like disease or major weather events.
According to Zachary Widgeon, Communications Director for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, it is important to balance leaving enough oysters to maintain water health while also harvesting enough to support the economy. The availability of oysters provides jobs to “anyone who handles oysters from the time they’re in the water to the time they’re on someone’s plate.”
Widgeon said, “Oysters are a big part of Virginia’s heritage and history and we want to make sure that everyone can enjoy Virginia’s oysters.”