Why You Should Get Into Oyster Farming

Oyster farming, also known as shellfish aquaculture, is great.  Not only are oysters delicious, they do a great job at keeping the environment clean.  Oysters are filter feeders that eat by pulling plankton and other particles from the water.  The famous statistic you usually hear is that the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population when Virginia was first settled by Europeans was so high that the entire volume of water in the Bay was filtered once every 3 to 4 days. The idea of that is incredible when you compare it to the oyster population in the Bay today.  Today’s Bay oyster population would take almost a full year to filter the same amount of water.  It would be awesome to get a chance to see what the water quality was like back then.

Oyster Farm in shallow water
Oyster farming is great for you and the environment. Photo by Percita, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

So that brings me to why oyster farming is great.  It helps rebuild dwindling populations in the Chesapeake and any other bodies of water around the country.  The more oysters we can sustain, the healthier these ecosystems will be.  Oysters are filtering the water 24/7 so oyster farms have amazing benefits for the environment.  One oyster filters around 50 gallons per day. So whether you are raising your oysters to eat or sell, the watershed will still benefits from them having been there.

The first step to a successful aquaculture is selecting a suitable location.  Oysters live in brackish and salt water, so the salinity of your location is very important.  You need to select a site that has a salinity of at least 8 ppt.  The higher the salinity, the higher the growth rates of your oysters will be.  There also needs to be sufficient water depth at your aquaculture site.  Ideally, you want to make sure that the water depth is at least 1 foot at the lowest tide.  If the oysters are exposed during low tide they won’t be able to feed and will have slower growth rates.  They also run the risk of freezing in the winter if they are exposed to the cold air.

The next step is to build the structure that the oysters will grow on.  You’ll want the grow structure to be designed to allow current to flow through and feed the oysters.  It’s also important to think about the weight once the oysters are full grown, and protection from common oyster predators.  The three main options most people go with are floats, cages, and mesh bags.

Don’t forget when you place your containers to make sure the oysters will not be exposed to dry air and will stay out of the mud on the bottom.

Oyster farming in containment, bushel, cage, aquaculture
Here is a bushel grown in a cage

The last step in this process is to get a permit.  If you’re setting up an oyster farm in Virginia, you’ll need a permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.  This permit allows you to use the water near your property to grow oysters.  The permit is free as long as you don’t plan on selling any oysters.  It is actually a great program because it provides a lot of useful data to the state about oyster population and health levels throughout the waterways.

Oyster farm in bags
Oysters grown in mesh bags. Don’t leave them high and dry!  Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

The Department of Environmental Quality has a great brochure that lists everything you need to know about the process.  Check it out Here.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission also has a ton of useful information on their website Here.

Overall, oyster farming is a great way to contribute to your local ecosystem.  As filter feeders, they have amazing benefits for the environment.  They also provide shelter for many smaller organisms that the top of the food chain depend on.  As an added bonus, oysters are delicious and you can eat your crop after they’ve spent a few years cleaning the bay.  Even if you’re not able to currently farm oysters, I hope this post is inspirational enough for you to promote the practice to others.  Let us know what you think!

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