Virginia is a major producer of two bivalve shellfish species - hard clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) and the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). Bay scallops (Argopecten irradians) are also produced but primarily for restoration. Virginia is #1 in the nation for the production of hard clams and #1 on the east coast for the production of oysters. An annual grower survey, initiated by MAP in 2005, tracks industry trends and documents the economic value of this culture industry to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The hard clam industry got its start in the 1970s at the VIMS Eastern Shore Laboratory with research on the practical applications for culture using hatchery technology and field-planting techniques. The hard clam industry had two decades of unbridled growth before hitting its peak in 2007. Cultured clams have dominated the Virginia market over wild harvest for several decades and today remain the lead contributor of economic revenue for shellfish culture in Virginia.
Virginia manages a productive wild public fishery with cultured product increasingly contributing, but not dominating, the commercial landings. Oyster aquaculture developed in response to the devastation of wild populations due to the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo. Hatchery technology developed from the hard clam sector along with improved genetics for survival in the face of the oyster disease produced a fast growing and marketable oyster for private ground usage. Virginia experienced a rapid expansion of this culture sector over the last decade is now a leader in oyster production on the east coast. The culture industry consists of two main production methods – intensive, or containerized production, and extensive, or on-bottom planting, which is also called spat-on-shell. Intensive culture targets the niche half-shell or boxed market while extensive is the large-scale plantings for the meat, or shucked market.
In addition to the commercial industry, Virginia is home to a large group of non-commercial oyster growers, called oyster gardeners. These waterfront landowners grow oysters as a hobby for local restoration, enjoyment, or personal consumption.
For a fact sheet on understanding oyster aquaculture in relation to the Virginia fishery (what percentage is wild vs hatchery-produced, etc), see Virginia Aquaculture Definition.
For more information on the History, Status, and Challenges of the Oyster Industry in Virginia, refer to the Virginia Oyster Productivity Informational Tool.