Virgina's current oyster season 'bountiful,' as state's 2007 harvest rotation policy helps yields grow over last three years

DELTAVILLE, Virginia , October 24, 2011 () – Oyster season is under way in Virginia, and a state rotation system is paying off with a bountiful harvest.

Oyster harvests have increased for three consecutive years in Virginia. That’s the first time that has happened in a generation.

And it is largely due in part to a 2007 state policy where waters are divvied up into sections that are cycled through over three years, allowing for replenishment.

The bounty is unusual because few of the succulent bivalves could be found in the wild for years now as a result of decades of pollution, ruined habitat and devastating diseases.

The Virginian-Pilot reports that after dropping to nearly zero in 2006, oyster landings topped more than 393,000 pounds in 2009, the last year data were available. That harvest was worth about $3.3 million.

While a far cry from historical catches, state officials, watermen, seafood merchants and some conservationists are still expressing hope.

“Last year was about the best I’ve seen it,” said William Parks, a waterman from Tangier Island who has been harvesting oysters for 36 years. “The rotational system has helped, for sure. There’s more oysters out there, and bigger ones, too.”

Jim Wesson, the state director of oyster replenishment, wants to expand the concept and set up management zones for additional rivers.

“For the first time that I’ve ever seen, we’re finally managing our oyster fishery instead of closing everything down or letting everyone take what they want,” said Tommy Kellum, owner of the oyster shucking company. “We’re protecting the resource, giving people work and keeping this industry viable. This is how things should be done.”

But federal officials with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are not so sure.

They are concerned about spending tax dollars on restoration programs that let watermen take oysters for private gain. Instead, they want Virginia to build sanctuary reefs with no harvesting, reasoning that oysters there might survive diseases and perhaps one day spawn a new generation of disease-resistant stocks.

The debate came to a head this year when Virginia refused to accept $2 million in federal oyster aid, saying it wanted to help restore stocks and benefit the industry.

The two sides reached a truce of sorts, at least for the rest of 2011, and the Army Corps has agreed to study the pros and cons of the rotational system, which should be completed in 2013.

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