Virginia calls itself the "Oyster Capitol of the East Coast.” But because the oyster population remains at historic lows, there's a struggle for oyster farmers and state sanctuaries to keep up with the shell needed to continue producing more oysters.
They use fossilized shells, granite and concrete, and recycling stations are sprouting up around the state. Now, even homeowners are kicking in.
Oyster shell sells for about $3-$4 a bushel, an expensive investment when your project is 4 acres of leased bottom for teaching the next generation of oyster farmers.
Jeff Duffy and his wife recently purchased a retirement home in the Northern Neck and were introduced to the region's common practice of putting oyster shells onto driveways, gardens and, in their case, as part of a French drain around their house. "We liked the oyster shells around the house but after about a month or two we decided there's probably a better use for these oysters and we wanted to do something for the local people," Duffy said.
So, they made some calls and, last week, more than a dozen volunteers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Tidewater Oyster Gardener's Association, known as TOGA, descended on the property to get them.
Madison Boyd is TOGA's project coordinator and teaches a group of the Northern Neck's youngest future oyster farmers. "We've got four acres of ground we're leasing and we're building an oyster reef down there," Boyd said. "It's an educational reef. We work with the Boys and Girls Clubs with kids, bring them down, teach them how to grow oysters, go over oyster aquaculture with them once a month."
The 83-year-old Boyd was once a waterman, working menhaden boats and fishing crabs and oysters. The rest of the group were just as formidable: Retirees, master oyster gardeners, some local, others who drove from Virginia Beach and Richmond. One was six months pregnant.
As morning turned to afternoon they raked, shoveled and hauled several thousand pounds of shells. By late afternoon, the group had hauled out 176 bushels and plans to return for the rest. In all there will be about 300 bushels.