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A battle over saving the oysters

Sonja Barisic

ON THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER, Va. – After five hours of seeking oysters in a section of a Chesapeake Bay tributary that has been off-limits until recently, Gerald Condrey was ready to call it a day.The commercial fisherman hadn’t caught much, and his take was about to be reduced further.When a Virginia Marine Police boat happened by, he agreed to sell a couple bushels of the largest shellfish to the state – not for eating, not for cooking in traditional Thanksgiving stuffing, but for dumping back into the Rappahannock River.”We’re going to watch y’all drop them over on the reef,” Marine Police Capt. Steve Pope called out as Condrey steered his workboat toward a marked sanctuary area in the river. There, Cordrey raised a tub and poured its gritty contents overboard.That simple action is part of a plan attempting to breed future generations of oysters that can stand up to the diseases that since the 1950s have devastated the bay’s once-bountiful oyster population.It is being tried in tandem with a new scheme to rotate harvesting to different parts of the river each year so no one area is overworked. That has opened part of the lower Rappahannock to oystering this fall for the first time in more than 15 years.Condrey and other watermen, as commercial fishermen are known locally, are skeptical.They say the area should have been opened long ago and they blame years of management plans and regulations for the small amount of oysters they’re encountering in the newly opened area – so meager they predict the oysters will run out before the season ends Nov. 30.They want to be allowed to harvest the entire river. “They need to open up where the oysters are,” said Condrey.The other sideWatermen argue that, like farm crops that grow better when fields are tilled and weeded, oysters will grow bigger and faster if they are harvested regularly from the river bottom.”You should see the oysters that have died” because the state hasn’t permitted them to be harvested, said oysterman Ken Smith of Heathsville, disgust in his voice. “You’ve heard of supply and demand? Let the watermen decide. They’re not going to come out here and work if they’re not going to make money.”Jim Wesson, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission oyster scientist who designed the rotational harvest and buyback program, said the state is trying to make the most efficient use of what oysters are out there and that time is needed to see if this will work.Wesson also said he never expected watermen to find a windfall in the newly opened area, estimating a total yield of 3,000 bushels of oysters that are market-sized – at least 3 inches.”That’s the way oysters are right now,” Wesson said. “There are no oysters in Virginia to speak of.”As food and as filters of pollutants in the water, oysters have been important to the ecology, economy and culture of the Chesapeake Bay for centuries.When Jamestown founder John Smith explored the bay in the early 1600s, he described in his journal oysters so abundant that they “lay thick as stones.”Following the Civil War, thousands of unemployed men sought to make a living harvesting oysters on the bay. Both Virginia and Maryland established oyster navies to enforce boundaries and prevent poaching; there were border disputes between Maryland and Virginia watermen and even “oyster wars” between the state of Virginia and oyster dredgers.As recently as 1957, Virginia was producing 30 percent of the nation’s oyster supply.Timmy Belvin of Gloucester has been a waterman since he was 12. He’s now 49.”Twenty years ago, you could come out here, you wouldn’t come under 75 bushels a day,” Belvin said. Now, he’s barely catching his limit of eight bushels per day of market-sized oysters.”There’s too much regulations,” Belvin said.With disease, as well as overharvesting and pollution, the native oyster population in the bay today is about 1 percent of its historic level, according to a recent report by a blue-ribbon panel of watermen, scientists, seafood merchants and VMRC members who spent about a year studying what Virginia had been doing to restore oysters. (Other states bordering the bay have made their own efforts to save the Chesapeake’s oysters.)Following a recommendation by the Virginia panel, VMRC approved reopening parts of the Rappahannock to harvest from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30. Under a three-year rotation, two areas of the river will be open every year.Watermen may use hand scrapes – old-fashioned rakes for scooping up the bivalves from the river bottom – from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays.They must cull oysters larger than 414 inches, either throwing them back into the water or selling up to three bushels of the larger oysters back to the state per day.The state pays $25 per bushel, or about $5 less per bushel than some watermen recently said they were getting paid for oysters they’re selling to seafood houses. Wesson said the state likely will buy back no more than 1,000 bushels.Oysters the state buys are immediately placed on a reef in a sanctuary within the harvest area. Monitoring has shown that oysters in the closed areas were very large, meaning they are reaching 7 or 8 years of age, about twice the age when oysters in the bay typically die of disease. Scientists want to know if the large oysters may have developed resistance to disease that could be passed on to create sturdier subsequent generations.Improving enforcement is another goal of the blue-ribbon panel. In the past, it found, fines weren’t enough to deter those intent on violating harvest rules.So, VMRC has established a zero-tolerance policy for oyster violations in state waters. A waterman must have a state license to work commercially, plus a special permit to harvest in the Rappahannock. A significant oyster violation now results in immediate confiscation of the permit; a waterman also faces a one-year suspension of his license for a first oyster offense and additional years for subsequent offenses.Virginia has 77 Marine Police officers who patrol more than 5,100 miles of shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. They conduct inspections, investigate accidents and conduct search and rescue missions. They bust illegal oyster-shucking and crab-picking operations, and even moonshiners.Pope, who leads the Marine Police station in Gloucester, said, “This is a great opportunity for the watermen to come out here and ply their trade and keep the tradition going.”Watermen say they understand that the police are just doing their jobs but that does not mean they accept the regulations.”I’d like to see the whole thing opened up so everyone can go to work and make a living and provide for their families,” said Mike Croxton Jr., a 47-year-old oysterman from Kilmarnock who works the river with his son, Mike III, in his Chesapeake deadrise, the Tammy C.”If you got a farm, you don’t fence off one little section and put all your cows on it. They eat that grass all up.”


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