Grants boost oyster farming

Published 8:11 pm Monday, September 7, 2015

By Leslie Middleton

Special to the News-Herald

Rich Harding pulls an oyster shell from a 3,000-gallon tank on the shore at Purcell’s Seafood on the Little Wicomico River. Counting more than a dozen oyster spat, he passes the shell to Karen Hudson, aquaculture specialist from Marine Advisory Services of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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Marine Advisory Services provides technical assistance and grants to the seafood industry. Many of the Fisheries Resource Grants have helped oyster growers and hatcheries in Virginia explore ways to expand the season, reduce labor costs and improve profits.

Some of the oysters processed at Purcell’s are grown using hatchery-raised oyster larvae that strike on clean shells in onshore tanks and are then moved to his leased oyster grounds, a technique called “spat-on-shell.” For the next two years, the oysters will grow to harvest size.

“When we get an average set like this,” Harding explains to Hudson, “we’ll likely get a return of one and a half or two bushels of market oysters for every bushel of spat-on-shell planted.”

That kind of bottom line has oyster growers in Virginia increasingly turning to spat-on-shell oyster cultivation — in addition to single-seed oyster aquaculture for the half-shell market, and traditional wild harvest. SOS has helped fuel an over 300-percent increase of oyster landings from private grounds during the last five years.

When Virginia oyster growers were starting to experiment with spat-on-shell, the grant program helped fund the 2009 Practical Manual for Remote Setting in Virginia. (Spat-on-shell is also called remote setting.) During the last decade, the grant program has funded nearly $900,000 in oyster related projects.

Harding, a recipient of the grant program, said the program has “helped us find ways to make SOS feasible on a broader scale. It’s been a great joint effort.”

A 2012 grant enabled another grower to experiment with starting spat-on-shell earlier in the spring by heating the river water in his tanks, gaining weeks of grow-out time and yielding a larger, more valuable oyster at harvest.

“What sets this grant program apart is that we’re not funding scientists, but instead look to industry itself to identify ideas they think will help improve a fishery, aquaculture, or seafood processing,” said Hudson.

“The Fisheries Resource Grant program is a great way for those in the seafood industry to try a new idea without committing a lot of time and effort to a research project,” said Mike Oesterling, executive director of Shellfish Growers of Virginia.

“We look to industry to come up with ideas of how to better manage the resource and be more profitable,” said Tom Murray, director of Marine Advisory Services and Sea Grant Marine Extension leader at VIMS.

Since 1999, when Virginia’s General Assembly created the program, $2.2 million has been directed towards more than 110 projects to help the seafood industry try new approaches.

On Nov. 1, the Fisheries Resource Grant program will start accepting proposals for 2016 projects. For more information, visit the VIMS Fisheries Resource Grant page at