Nov 21, 2006

Watermen want to reopen Rappahannock mouth for oystering

The Washington Post

November 20 2006

URBANNA, Va. -- By the Chesapeake Bay's historic standards, the mouth
of the Rappahannock River is something close to an oyster desert. A
measly three large shellfish live on every square meter of riverbed
there, which would have been nothing in the days when huge oyster
reefs sometimes blocked boat traffic.

Now, though, it's a prize worth fighting over. This fall, the area is
at the center of a debate that involves the bay's most vocal
constituencies. It pits a long-range survival strategy for this
decimated species against the short-term demands of Christmas dinner,
which watermen say would produce a crucial income boost for their
troubled industry.

Watermen have asked Virginia officials to reopen the area, which has
been protected from harvest for 12 years. Oysters used to provide much
of their winter income.

Scientists and environmentalists object to the opening, saying more
time is needed for a comeback from overfishing, pollution and disease.

It's all part of a larger struggle over the future of this signature
Chesapeake shellfish, with environmental groups and seafood groups
pulling in opposite directions. Already, frustrated watermen have
begun to ask: If the oysters are going to perish anyway, why shouldn't
it be on the half shell?

"We have to take what God has given us out there," Dale Taylor of
Urbanna, president of the Virginia Watermen's Association. "Or they
keep dying."

The protected area in the Rappahannock, more than three hours
southeast of Washington, includes tens of thousands of acres of
riverbed. Of that, state officials estimate, about 300 acres are
suitable for oysters.

State officials say the area is one of the largest of the more than
130 protected zones around the bay. Scientists hope that shellfish
protected from harvest will evolve so they can survive the bay's
virulent oyster diseases.

"We don't have an area of that size, that has been closed for this
length of time, or that contains so many oysters," in Virginia, said
Jack Travelstead, deputy commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources

If a harvest is allowed in part of the zone, Travelstead said,
"everything that has been gained in that area would be lost."

But some watermen and seafood processors see something different here:
a wasted opportunity. They think the harvest wouldn't do the kind of
damage that some fear, and that it would guarantee an economic boost.

"Not only do I need oysters, I need watermen to catch 'em," and
opening the sanctuary would help keep watermen in business, said Tommy
Kellum, a seafood merchant from Weems who supports opening the
protected area.

Next week, the Marine Resources Commission will meet to consider
whether to open part of the area, perhaps for a 30-day harvest. That
would mean watermen scraping oysters off the river bottom with a
boat-drawn rake called a dredge.

Similar proposals have been rejected for the past four years. But this
year is different, officials say: As the oyster harvest appears headed
for another bad year, watermen's demands have gained more momentum.
"They're giving it a little bit of a more thorough look this time,"
Travelstead said of the commission.

The back story for all this is the decades-long decline of the
Chesapeake oyster, which stands out even among the estuary's other
environmental tragedies. The rockfish, after all, came back. The blue
crab still has a fighting chance. But oysters--to find a sadder story,
ask a dodo.

Its problems began with a national oyster craze in the late 1800s,
which set off a watermen's rush so lawless that the bay states
assembled armed "Oyster Navies" to enforce harvest rules. By 1920,
according to one scientist's estimate, more than 75 percent of the
bay's population was gone for good.

In the 20th century came the diseases, caused by a pair of protozoa
that are harmless to humans, but ravage the shellfish by multiplying
rapidly inside them. After huge outbreaks in the 1980s, the oyster
population has been left at about 1percent of its historic levels.

To bring the population back, state officials have tried using old
oyster shells or concrete rubble to give oysters places to attach
themselves. They have pumped out millions of young oysters at

All told, government agencies have spent at least $45 million since
1994 alone, according to an estimate from the Maryland Department of
Natural Resources.

This work has produced some bright spots: This year, researchers found
a thriving, dense oyster population living in the Lynnhaven River in
Virginia Beach. And some research has seemed to show oysters growing
more resistant to disease.

But none of these efforts have come close to bringing the oyster back.

Some optimistic researchers believe that the oyster might eventually
regain 5 percent to 20 percent of its historic population.

But others doubt that the situation will ever get much better than it
is now. They say the bivalves probably won't be killed off completely,
but they will be reduced to a bit player in an ecosystem they used to

"The prognosis is poor," unless disease can somehow be conquered, said
Chris Judy, shellfish program director with the Maryland Department of
Natural Resources. "It'll be here, but it'll be here at a low level."

That's bad for the Chesapeake, because oysters filter out harmful dirt
and algae.

And it's bad for the bay's estimated 9,000-plus watermen and the
culture built around them. For years, even the Oyster Festival in the
Rappahannock town of Urbanna has had to rely on oysters imported from
the Gulf of Mexico. The first-graders competing to be crowned Little
Miss Spat (named for a baby oyster) are still local, but the main
ingredient in the oyster stews, oyster casseroles and oysters
Rockefeller usually aren't.

So what now? A group led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Norfolk
office is considering whether to introduce a new oyster from Asia,
which is believed to be more resistant to disease. Another high-level
group, a "Blue Ribbon Oyster Panel," has been appointed to consider
Virginia's oyster options.

Both are expected to report back in 2007.

This fall, many of the questions these panels are facing are playing
out, in miniature, in the Rappahannock debate. Watermen say they need
help. But scientists and environmentalists say the needs of the oyster
and the bay should get top priority.

In Norfolk, Lower Chesapeake Bay Watermen's Association President Pete
Nixon said he could see both sides, as well as the desperation
inherent in the whole exercise.

"It's like it's the last--let's go out and kill the last hurt
buffalo," Nixon said.
Copyright (c) 2006, Daily Press


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