Earlier this month, Gov. Bob McDonnell toured Kellum Seafood Company’s oyster harvesting, shucking and packing facility in Weems, located in the Northern Neck along the Rappahannock River, to witness first-hand the strides made by Virginia’s oyster industry and to celebrate the industry’s growth in recent years, highlighted by a 28 percent leap in last year’s harvest. Over the past decade, the oyster harvest in Virginia has increased ten-fold, from 23,000 bushels in the 2001 oyster season to 250,000 bushels in the 2011 season. In that time, the dockside value of the oyster harvest increased from $575,000 to $8.75 million in 2011. Virginia continues to be the largest East Coast producer, and the nation’s third largest overall producer, of marine products.
“Virginia’s oyster industry has made remarkable strides, and indications are this year’s harvest may be the best we’ve seen in the past quarter-century,’’ Governor McDonnell said. “Good management has allowed us to put our excellent oysters on dinner tables around the world, to create good jobs for our citizens and to bring new revenue into our state. And we’re on pace for even more growth in the oyster industry. As oyster companies like Kellum Seafood continue to grow, they know they’ve got a friend in Richmond. Working with the General Assembly, we’re laser focused on putting in place policies that help job-creators like Tommy Kellum continue to expand their operations, and employ more Virginians in the process.”
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s preliminary harvest reports indicate the 2012-13 oyster season harvest has increased another 28 percent, to more than 320,000 bushels, with a dockside value of $11.2 million, making it the largest oyster harvest in Virginia since 1987.
Kellum Seafood was founded three generations ago in a one-room oyster shucking house and has grown into an operation that grows, harvests, shucks, packs and ships oysters from water bottom the company leases from the state, as well as oysters caught from public oyster rocks by commercial watermen. Kellum Seafood’s plant has grown over the years to a 10,000 square foot facility complete with storage and on-site U.S. Department of Commerce inspections.
“The oyster industry is growing and has a bright future,’’ said Tommy Kellum, current partner and vice-president of Kellum Seafood and the third generation of Kellums to manage the operation. “I’m so convinced of that that I’m expanding our operations and have recently purchased a new vessel to help accommodate the growth. Growth means jobs. The Governor and his Administration deserve a lot of credit.”
“Good fishery management has produced excellent results that are bearing fruit in the form of larger harvests, a growing industry and more jobs,” said Doug Domenech, Secretary of Natural Resources. “This is a win for the health of the Bay, for oyster-lovers and for our hard-pressed watermen in these difficult economic times.”
Thanks to a record $2 million appropriated in the state budget for oyster replenishment by Governor McDonnell and the Virginia General Assembly, VMRC mined fossil oyster shells this summer from the James River (augmented with available empty oyster shells from shucking houses such as Kellum Seafood) and planted roughly 1 billion individual empty oyster shells on public oyster grounds. It was enough to fill approximately 4,000 dump trucks.
Those empty shells will become homes for naturally occurring oyster larvae that attach to them during spawning and grow to form new adult oysters that will reach market size in roughly three years. The replenishment program provides significant ecological as well as economic benefits. A single adult oyster can purge up to 50 gallons of water a day. Oyster reefs provide important forage and refuge habitat for invertebrates, as well as juvenile crabs and finfish species.
“While some of these oyster replenishment shells went onto our oyster sanctuaries, the majority went onto our new rotational oyster harvest areas, meaning they will be untouched for several years as they grow to adulthood and spawn a new generation of oysters before they can be harvested,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner Jack Travelstead. “It is important they be harvested at that point because otherwise they are susceptible to two diseases, Dermo and MSX, which kill adult oysters. We don’t want to see these oysters wasted to disease.”
VMRC’s Dr. Jim Wesson estimates every $1 spent by the state to plant oyster shell yields $7 in economic benefits in the form of larger harvests, and increased jobs for oyster shucking, processing, packing and shipping houses.
Over the past five years of rotational harvests, the harvest off public oyster grounds has almost quadrupled, from 36,000 bushels in the 2008 oyster season to 137,000 bushels in 2012. If oyster replenishment funding is continued at its current level, and environmental conditions remain unchanged, Wesson estimates the harvest from public oyster grounds could grow to 200,000 bushels in 2016 and that combined with anticipated increases in oyster aquaculture production, could push Virginia’s oyster harvest to 500,000 bushels in 2016 – which, if realized, would be a 56 percent increase from the preliminary 2012 harvest level.
“The significant gains in oyster aquaculture over the last few years have solidified the Commonwealth’s position in the global marketplace as a top producer of the highest quality oysters,’’ said Todd Haymore, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry. “The Governor has promoted Virginia’s outstanding marine products, including our world-class oysters, on all of his domestic and international trade missions, resulting in new sales to key markets along the East Coast and to Asia and Europe. With fortified domestic marketing efforts and new Virginia agricultural trade offices now open in China and Great Britain and one to open soon in Canada, we expect more sales opportunities in the months ahead for our oyster producers and exporters.”
The Virginia seafood industry is one of the oldest industries in the United States and one of the Commonwealth’s largest. According to the Virginia Marine Products Board, the marketing arm of Virginia’s seafood industry, Virginia is the nation’s third largest producer of marine products, behind only Alaska and Louisiana, with total landings of almost 495 million pounds in 2011, the most recent year with full economic data. The dockside value from these landing to watermen alone was just under $192 million