The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has played an important role in the recovery of the Commonwealth’s oyster industry through its research and educational offerings.
The popular species of oyster found along the Atlantic Coast is named Crassostrea virginica, literally “Virginia oyster,” because of its predominance in Virginia waters, including the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Unfortunately, the wild oyster beds and natural reefs off Virginia’s coastline have been depleted over the last 100 years due to overfishing, pollution, disease and changing water temperature and saline levels.
These factors have caused the industry to migrate towards aquaculture techniques that involve cultivating oysters and closely monitoring their growth phases on and offshore.
VIMS partners with local oyster farms by sharing its scientific and industry research, providing education on sustainable aquaculture techniques, and guiding companies through the regulation process.
This has enabled small businesses to prosper, such as Rappahannock River Oyster Co. Recently featured in national news, the great grandsons of the founder quickly learned the ropes after taking over the 100-year-old family business in 2001.
Today, the company owns three restaurants and ships 100,000 oysters per week to restaurants all over the U.S., as well as Hong Kong. Rappahannock River Oyster Co. is helping to repopularize the Virginia oyster and offers four flavors. The “Rappahannock” is the sweetest variety and is grown in the Rappahannock River, while “Olde Salts” from the Chincoteague Bay is the saltiest.
According to Rappahannock River Oyster Co. Director of Operations, Captain Anthony Marchetti, “VIMS has laid the foundation to help develop quality seed that allows us to grow more oysters. Over the last five years, we’ve seen a 500 percent increase in the production of our Rappahannock oysters.”
That growth is occurring across the industry. According to VIMS, the number of aquaculture oysters sold by Virginia farms has increased from 0.8 million in 2005 to 28.1 million in 2012.
“Renewed interest in regional flavors and sustainable food practices has helped drive this market,” said Karen Hudson, VIMS Commercial Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Specialist. “It’s already an economically valuable industry and one that has lots of potential to grow. In 2012, there was an economic output of almost $20 million associated with single oyster aquaculture in Virginia.”
Captain Anthony Marchetti examines a successful crop of the company’s sweet “Rappahannock” oysters, fresh from the Rappahannock River. Photo courtesy of Rappahannock River Oyster Co.