Va. watermen wary of plan to restore oyster population
Harvest rotation requires tossing their catch back
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 of bushels of the largest shellfish to the state - not for eating, not for cooking in traditional holiday stuffing, but for dumping back into the Rappahannock River.
"We're going to watch y'all drop them over on the reef," Marine Police Captain 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," Condrey said.
Watermen say 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, overharvesting, and pollution, the native oyster population in the bay today is about 1 percent of its historic level, according to a recent report.