Dating back to Jamestown settlers, Virginia’s oyster industry is one of the longest-standing industries in the state. Today, Virginia’s oyster population is thriving and experiencing what many in the industry are calling a renaissance. Virginia is the top producer of oysters on the East Coast. From 2013 to 2014, oyster harvest values soared from $22.2 million to $33.8 million – the highest increase in nearly a generation.
Still Growing Strong
“The state of Virginia’s oyster industry is the best it has been in over 30 years,” says oyster farmer Chris Ludford, who owns Pleasure House Oysters along the Lynnhaven River. “We are growing millions of aquacultured oysters while we are building on a very conservative harvest of rebounding wild oyster population. At the same time, a great majority of the oyster industry is actively supporting, and in many cases even leading, the effort to recycle shell for the purpose of rebuilding our historic reefs.”
Ludford says Virginia remains a leader in oyster production because of systems in place that encourage oyster production through a “relatively easy-access and affordable process of leasing productive areas.”
“Virginia oysters are a more desirable choice because the harvesters, growers, processors and distributors all work together with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to provide a product that is sustainable, healthy and historic in reputation.”
Oysters Year Round
Another contributing factor to the success of the state’s oyster industry is the advances in aquaculture techniques and refrigerated transportation, allowing oysters to be available and enjoyed year round.
“The myth used to be that you should only eat oysters during a month that ends in ‘R,’ but that was because we didn’t have refrigeration like we have today,” says Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board. “We didn’t have the rules and regulations and modern technology we have now, as well as inspections, better management practices and quality control. The waters are monitored by several state agencies, ensuring oysters are safe to eat all year.”
Virginia oysters are also eco- friendly, actively filtering the water they are grown in. The oyster industry is one of the few industries that as it expands, provides tangible, increased environmental benefits.
“Every adult oyster filters an average of 50 gallons of water a day. There are millions and millions of managed oysters growing in the water, so it takes the pressure off the wild oysters. It’s a win-win for the environment and for the oyster industry that we have healthier water, a cleaner bay and cleaner rivers because of the number of oysters,” Hutt says.
Oysters For All
Virginia’s oyster industry is also thriving thanks to a concerted effort to market it to local consumers and tourists. The state partnered with the Artisans Center of Virginia to develop the Virginia Oyster Trail, a consortium of producers, restaurants and raw bars helping link oysters to the state’s tourism industry.
“People like to know where their food comes from, and what we’re trying to do with the Virginia Oyster Trail is to tell that story. Each of the eight ‘flavor’ regions has a story to tell, and every business that we have along the trail has its own story to tell as well,” says Sherri Smith, executive director of the Artisans Center of Virginia. “When you put those together, it makes for a very rich experience for the visitor.
“Then, if you add the culinary side – the innovation, the creation of the chefs in the region – and pair that with local wines or craft beers, and bring in beautiful venues along the water where you can sit and eat these oysters, you have an incredible package,” she says.
Ludford, who offers boat tours of oyster farms, says the Virginia Oyster Trail has been instrumental over the last year in linking consumers to the oyster industry.
“The locavore, farm-to-table and sea-to-table movements have had a huge impact on the demand for Virginia oysters,” he says. “There is a huge pull by some to keep oysters home in Virginia, but the rest of the nation wants them, too. My farm tours have grown tremendously since starting them in 2014.”