Senator Kaine checks in on Virginia Oysters

From Left: Jack Travelstead, head of VMRC; Sen. Tim Kaine and Jim Wesson, head of oyster replenishment inspect a haul of oysters from the Rappahannock River.

Sen. Tim Kaine broke free of the Syria debate last Friday to hear out state fisheries officials on how Washington can help continue the success of its oyster industry.

Kaine was taken aboard the J.B. Baylor where he viewed public and private oyster grounds.

Virginia’s state officials would like watermen to have access, on a rotational basis, to oyster sanctuaries.

Jim Wesson, who heads the state’s oyster conservation and replenishment said sanctuaries, while important to the industry, cannot be depended upon entirely because disease like MSX and Dermo are still killing oysters.

“Even though a sanctuary looks really good in the beginning, over time, it dies out,” said Wesson. “Now we have sanctuaries out here and they look exactly like the areas that we are harvesting.”

Wesson said harvesting generated enough revenue for the state that they could request additional state funding for the purpose of putting more shells back into the river to continue the replenishment program.

Doug Domenech, Secretary of Natural Resources told Kaine about ongoing issues with the United States Army Corps of Engineers and their oyster sanctuary program.

“We’re trying to chip away at getting them to do some things a little differently that would help the watermen a little bit more,” said Domenech.

Kaine said the VMRC and others on the boat made a strong case to him that the rotational method was just as strong environmentally as the sanctuary method while also producing an economic value that made it a more sustainable method, “and that the Army Corps ought to be investing in that as well.”

“That was part of what I learned today,” said Kaine. “That gives me the ability to go up and talk to Corps folks in D.C. and the regional offices to see if we can maybe get them to rethink policy a little bit.”

With the arrival of a new generation of watermen and the growth of aquaculture, Virginia’s oyster industry is a far cry from where it stood 12 years ago.

According to the VMRC, harvest reports skyrocketed from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 320,000 bushels in 2012, which is the largest annual harvest of oysters in Virginia since 1987.

With the rotational strategy, oysters are harvested on a regular basis while still allowing them time to regenerate naturally on public grounds. It was this strategy that, according to the VMRC, has served as a principal factor in fostering the industry’s growth.

Kaine said he learned that the Corps, which invests in the environmental restoration of oyster beds may have been investing in sanctuaries but not the rotational method developed in Virginia.

Wesson said rotational areas in the Rappahannock River, which in 2007 became the model for the method, are closed until the oysters are harvested before diseases kill them when they are about three years old.

When the marketable oysters are harvested, Wesson said, the areas are closed for 34 months until the next season.

“It’s counterintuitive that shorter seasons end up giving you more harvest, but they actually do as opposed to having the entire area open all the time, some each year,” said Wesson, who added that the model has also been transferred to the Tangier Sound and York River.

A majority of the oyster replenishment shells, to which oyster larvae attach and grow into market-sized adults, have gone into the state’s rotational harvest areas.

In commenting on what he hoped Kaine took away from his visit on the Rappahannock River, John Bull, Spokesman for the VMRC said: “Senator Kaine is by nature a very inquisitive person. He’s very curious, he always wants to learn more, he wants to be informed about things that impact his constituents and impacts their way of life.

“What he learned today was a number of things that he knew in a general sense, but he’s learned a lot more in a more detailed sense,” Bull added. “The more a U.S. Senator knows about what’s going on in Virginia, the better it is for Virginia.”

John D. “Jack” Miller, Jr., Middlesex County’s Harmony Village Dist. Supervisor and President of the Virginia Association of Counties, said that the oyster industry is “so beneficial for us, because we have something here that is very special, and it should be known about.”

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is an agency of the Natural Resources Secretariat. For more information about the VMRC, visit www.mrc.virginia.gov or call 757-247-2200.

Posted on Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 10:03 am