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Virginia-grown oysters dominate East Coast production

CAPE CHARLES, VA—Chris Buck found the ideal spot for growing oysters on Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore at Cherrystone Creek, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic.

“Geography is an important factor,” said Buck, who founded Ruby Salts Oyster Co. in 2010. “I had the good fortune to come across a piece of intertidal bottom suitable for growing oysters. They take on the flavor of where they’re grown, and the Chesapeake Bay is an amazing resource with a wide salinity range.”

Wind, tide cycles and heavy rainfall can alter salinity levels.

“But we’re able to stay pretty consistent at the mouth of the bay,” he said. “So our waters are not as susceptible to fluctuations.”

Celebrating Virginia’s No. 1 rank in oyster production on the East Coast, Gov. Glenn Youngkin proclaimed November to be Virginia Oyster Month. The commonwealth is home to eight different oyster regions, each with its own taste, history and heritage, originally harvested by Native Americans and early colonists.

Now consumers shell out for fresh oysters that are iced and shucked at fine restaurants and in stores year-round.

“Aquaculture is a booming industry in Virginia,” Youngkin wrote in the proclamation. “The average dockside value for Virginia’s wild and farmed oysters is approximately $40 million annually.”

Consumers are eating oysters year-round because only consuming them in months ending in R is an antiquated philosophy, Buck explained. Commonly-used triploid oysters are sterile, not expending energy—and meat quality—on reproduction in warm summer months. “We also have rapid transport with mechanical refrigeration,” Buck added. “When oysters are harvested and cooled, they are safe to consume in warmer months.”

The Viginia Museum of History and Culture reported that pollution and overharvesting led to environmental degradation of the state’s oysters. By the 1970s, Chesapeake oyster production was at an all-time low, nearly decimating the regional industry.

But extensive conservation work resulted in healthier oyster beds. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2022 State of the Bay Report found record oyster reproduction in 2020 and 2021. And those bivalves play a crucial role in water quality.

“Each oyster filters about 50 gallons of water a day, and with a farm of 3 million oysters here, we’re really getting it!” said Jordan Podd, who grows oysters with Rigby Island Oyster Co. in Mathews County on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. In an appearance on Virginia Farm Bureau’s Real Virginia program, he said county leaders were helpful with permitting to enhance revenues and help the bay.

To support state aquaculture growers, ask specifically for Virginia oysters, Buck advised. The method of consumption is up to you.

“I’ll eat them any way—raw, grilled or roasted,” he said. “As far as toppings, I think less is more. And I know oyster stuffing is a holiday tradition for a lot of families.”

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