Feb 16, 2024 - Food and Drink

Maryland and Virginia are in the midst of an oyster boom

A harvest of farm grown oysters, Hoopers Island, Maryland.. (Photo by: Edwin Remsberg / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Farm-raised oysters in Hoopers Island, Md. Photo: Edwin Remsberg, VWPics, Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It's a banner year for Chesapeake oysters after populations in Virginia and Maryland set record highs.

Why it matters: Local bivalve beds were decimated by the 1980s from overfishing, loss of habitat, and disease, but after decades of restoration efforts, their populations are thriving alongside oyster farms and fisheries.

What's happening: In Virginia, around 700,000 bushels of oysters were harvested in the 2022-2023 season — the highest yield in 35 years, writes Axios' Karri Peifer.

Flashback: The industry was well on its way to a recovery when the pandemic hit, and Virginia oyster farmers saw their sales drop by 95-99%, the Virginia Mercury reported.

Yes, but: It's back. Today, Virginia is the top-selling oyster state on the East Coast and among the biggest producers in the nation, according to the latest data from the Department of Agriculture.

By the numbers: Virginia's seafood industry contributes more than $1.1 billion to the state's economy, according to recent figures from the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

  • Oyster sales in the Old Dominion top $60 million, per the USDA. The state boasts around 134 active oyster farms, up from 60 a decade ago.

Zoom in: In Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources "recorded a remarkable year for juvenile oysters" during their fall oyster survey, "finding prolific numbers and a widespread distribution throughout many regions of the Chesapeake Bay."

  • In the 2022-23 season, watermen harvested about 720,000 bushels of oysters from public fishing areas — the largest-recorded harvest since the late '80s.
  • It marks the second record-high year for a wild harvest in Maryland.

Zoom out: Maryland pushed hard to repopulate wild oysters, planting more than 1.7 billion new juveniles on sanctuary and public oyster fishery sites in 2023.

  • The program has planted nearly 7 billion oysters since launching a massive restoration strategy in 2014.

Between the lines: Local oyster bars are booming, too, with chefs and restaurateurs capitalizing on their backyard bounty.

Oysters on a white plate over a wood plate next to an oyster candle, loaf of bread
Local oyster-chic at the Oyster Garage. Photo courtesy of Rey Lopez

The intrigue: Some high-volume oyster bars even partner with local farms to grow their own "proprietary" Chesapeake oysters — a mutually beneficial relationship where chefs get an exclusive product, often tailored to their taste (e.g. briny or sweet), and farms can grow their beds and sales.

  • Hank's Oyster Bar was among the first over a decade ago, partnering with Virginia farms for two varieties of oysters (the delicious "Salty Wolfe" is still on menus today).
  • Long Shot Hospitality, the shellfish-loving hospitality group behind The Salt Line, recently unveiled a new house oyster, the Dancing Molly, which their team co-created with Harris Creek Oyster Co. near St. Michaels — working together to create a "perfect oyster" (e.g. a sweet brine, plump texture) that also helped fund the family farm's expansion.

Between the lines: A lot of local restaurants, Long Shot included, participate in "shell recycling" through the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which picks up truckloads of spent shells from businesses and uses them to build oyster reefs in the bay.

Reality check: The Chesapeake is a success story when it comes to oyster recovery, but it's still at a critical juncture.

  • A new Chesapeake Bay Foundation report outlines steps Virginia and Maryland fisheries and conservationists need to take to continue the upward trend, including increasing aquaculture and speeding up recovery measures.

The bottom line: What's good for oysters is good for the bay. The filter feeders are crucial to the health of the water, and continue to be a bread-and-butter fishery for farmers and watermen.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Maryland planted more than 1.7 billion new wild oyster juveniles in 2023, not 1.7 million. It's also been updated with new numbers of oyster bushels harvested in Maryland in the 2022-23 season.

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