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Will Potomac oysters make comeback?

By RUSTY DENNEN

After years of little or no oyster harvest on the once-bountiful Potomac River, watermen are catching more of the tasty shellfish these days.

The few-thousand bushels they’ve caught since October is miniscule compared to the glory days of the 1960s, but it’s a sign that efforts to restore oysters in the “nation’s river” are beginning to pay off.

“Last year at this time, we had about 250 bushels [caught], primarily around St. George’s Island in the lower river,” said Kirby Carpenter, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission in Colonial Beach. This year, there’s been a tenfold increase to around 2,500 bushels.

That’s significant, he says, because it shows that—after years of dismal harvests—native oysters in that part of the river are reproducing and growing to market size. Since the 1980s, oysters in much of the river have been wiped out by a convergence of disease, over-harvesting and freshwater from floods.

“It shows that there’s some potential there to be redeveloped,” said Carpenter, who heads up the bi-state commission that regulates fishing in the river. The commission has initiated a three-pronged program it hopes will reverse the oysters’ decline.

The main components: a sustainable put-and-take fishery known as the Oyster Management Reserve Program; rotational harvests on other oyster grounds; and maintaining off-limits areas to protect brood stock.

The oyster reserve is the most-recent initiative, and the quickest way for watermen to increase their catch dramatically over the next few years—if it works as planned and nature cooperates.

The first batch of 5,000 bushels of sterile, native Eastern oysters were stocked last June in one reserve area off the Virginia shore.

“They’re showing very good growth and survival” Carpenter said.

Another planting is planned for this spring, either on that site, or another designated spot off the Maryland shore.

BLUE-RIBBON PANEL

Because sterile oysters don’t use energy to reproduce, they grow all year long and can be harvested in about two years.

It takes fertile Eastern oysters about four years to grow to market size. Because of that slower growth rate, they are susceptible to diseases that can kill them before they’re harvested.

Planning for the oyster reserve began in 2011. It was one of the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel of watermen, buyers, packers and scientists from Maryland and Virginia.

The PRFC put up about $150,000 for the first two years to help jump-start the oyster reserve. In addition, 20 watermen who agreed to take part are paying about $500 a year for three years as their initial contribution to the put-and-take initiative.

If the oyster reserve is successful, more buy-ins are expected.

Wayne France, president of the Twin Rivers Waterman’s Association, is one of the group of 20.

“Something has to be done; we have to try anything we can to restore oysters in the Potomac,” said France, 54, who lives near Warsaw on the Northern Neck. He has worked on the water most of his life.

He hopes his investment will pay off.

“You really don’t know because there are so many variables,” he said. A hurricane or tropical storm can swell the river with fresh water and kill the oysters; cow-nosed rays and other predators eat them.

So, “We’re hoping for the best,” France said.

The idea is that the effort will be self-sustaining, in time. River-related interests—marinas, restaurants, seafood wholesalers and packing houses, oyster gardeners, other industry groups, for example—will be asked to help sponsor the program. They can also purchase a license and designate someone to work on the river.

‘LONG WAYS TO GO’

“We can build this river back; I’m a firm believer in that ” said Tucker Brown, 74, a waterman from St. Mary’s County, Md., and among the group of 20.

“The bottom line is that something is getting started to try and get it back.” He says bringing in other commercial partners is a good idea.

“We’ve got a long ways to go, and we’re going to need some help. This is a great start, and it shows that people from both states are trying.”

With the new push, “We’re doing things in this fishery that we never did before,” he added.

Unlike other watermen working on the river, who must comply with seasons and catch limits, those in the reserve program decide when to harvest and how many oysters each man can take. So far, there’s been one informal meeting of the group, composed of fishermen from both sides of the Potomac.

PRFC Commissioner Kyle Schick said the new approach will benefit those who depend on the river for their livelihoods and the fishery.

FUNDS SCARCE

“It’s a way to take the money we had and to put oysters on the river bottom. Basically, it will allow people to start harvesting again.”

He noted the commission, which funds its operations through license fees and taxes, has limited resources for replenishment. It gets no money from Maryland or Virginia.

“This is just a very small beginning to really get something going. It needs to be done on a large scale,” Schick said.

Whatever is done is at the mercy of Mother Nature. “We’ll continue to have droughts and freshets” that can kill what’s already in the river, he said. “But if you do it every year, and keep doing it feasibly, large sections of the river could be included.”

That might open the door to more funding for oyster restoration, he says.

Schick, the owner of Colonial Beach Yacht Center, served on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission before being appointed to the PRFC eight years ago.

Like the watermen, he has seen the oyster’s decline, firsthand.

“I’ve been at the marina for 25 years. When I bought it, there were 80 oyster boats” at the docks. By 1991, he said, the boats, and the industry, had all but vanished.

He believes it can make a comeback, though there are big challenges.

While the Potomac oyster is on the critical list, elsewhere in the bay, they’re rebounding after years of decline.

Maryland watermen have hauled in a bumper crop. The state’s Department of Natural Resources says the season, which ends March 1, could triple last season’s catch of 135,000 bushels. Numbers are way up on some Virginia tributaries as well.

Watermen say the Potomac hasn’t had a river-wide “set,” or spawn, in nearly three decades.

France says runoff from urban areas and sediment are among the contributing factors.

“So much has been built up in Northern Virginia and Maryland, and when we get big rains, so much pollution flushes into the river all at one time.”

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

TURNING AROUND THE OYSTER DECLINE

The last major effort to address the oyster decline in the Potomac River was in the mid-1990s, when the industry supported the introduction of fast-growing Asian oysters to supplement the native stock.

Much of the money of management agencies, such as the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, went into research toward that end.

Growers along the river experimented with a sterile Asian variety. But there were nagging concerns from conservationists and biologists that even “sterile” oysters could eventually become fertile in the wild.

Those and other issues prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was heading up an analysis of the problem, to announce in April 2009 that the plan was too risky to the river’s ecology.

The Army, along with the PRFC and other natural resource agencies, agreed that native Eastern oyster restoration should be the preferred alternative and sole focus of funding and science efforts.

Decades ago, when oysters were reproducing regularly in the Potomac, the river was regarded as the oyster sweet spot. Potomac oysters were considered among the best in the industry.

In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of oyster boats worked within sight of Colonial Beach each fall and winter, catching hundreds of thousands of bushels.

Legend has it that, in the early 1900s, a waterman could walk across the river on the gunwales of oyster boats.

For more on the Potomac River efforts, prfc.state.va.us

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