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Monday, June 16, 2008

Future of Oystering in Va may lie with Private Sector

Hatcheries may be able to supply enough seed to re-establish industry

Aquaculture oysters

With sales jumping almost sixfold in the past three years, private oyster farmers might be the key to rebuilding Virginia's oyster population.

"We can have more oysters on the bottom if somebody's being profitable," said James Wesson, the leader of the state's battle to bring back dead or depleted oyster reefs.

In the past 16 years, Wesson, oyster manager for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, has overseen the spending of $18.9 million in state and federal funds with little or no reward because of disease pressure and predatory cownosed rays.

"We may be holding our own," he said, "but we've not seen much evidence of improvement in the long term."

But at the end of a sun-drenched dock on the Northern Neck's Coan River, 4 million baby seed oysters are the latest crop in a contraption that force-feeds them algae so they will grow quickly.

The fingernail-sized bivalves soon will be placed overboard in predator-proof cages that will be constantly cleaned and tended. Once the shellfish reach 3 inches long, in 12 to 18 months, they will be harvested.

Growing oysters this way is costly, time-consuming and labor-intensive, said A.J. Erskine, aquaculturalist for two of the state's biggest oyster-processing companies. But it's effective.

. . .

The few surviving Virginia oyster businesses are especially motivated to get oysters to market. As Chesapeake Bay oysters began crashing in the 1980s, the state's oyster packers turned to out-of-state sources, such as Louisiana.

With diesel-fuel prices rising, oyster packers are looking for a source of supply closer to home.

For Erskine, that means possibly building a hatchery on the Northern Neck under a proposal presented by his bosses, Cowart Seafood Co. and Bevans Oyster Co., and Kellum Seafood and the Northern Neck Planning District Commission.

The commission is negotiating with a consultant to study the plan.

"We think a hatchery will be very instrumental in bringing the oyster back," said Jerry Davis, the commission's director. He expects that a hatchery would cost at least $1 million.

Lake Cowart Jr., who runs Cowart Seafood in Northumberland County, said the oyster industry's future may depend on it.

"We're absolutely at the point we cannot get enough [seed oysters] out of Virginia," he said.

A handful of hatcheries operate in the state, but such businesses as Cowart, Bevans of Westmoreland County and Kellum in Lancaster County that grow their own oysters on bottom leased from the state need more seed than they can find.

"I'd say the demand is double or triple [the supply] at this point," Cowart said.

A Virginia Institute of Marine Science Sea Grant Extension study released in May reinforces Cowart's claim.

It showed that private oyster growers in the state almost tripled the hatchery oysters they planted in 2006 -- 16 million compared with 6 million the year before. In 2007, though, the rate of increase slowed. They planted 18.4 million hatchery oysters. The study blamed a lack of hatchery seed.

"The need for hatcheries is immense," said Mike Oesterling, a VIMS aquaculture specialist who co-wrote the report.

Virginia once measured its annual oyster harvest in the tens of millions of bushels. Years of overharvest sent stocks slowly down until the mid-1980s, when diseases Dermo and MSX infiltrated the bay and killed oysters.

The annual catch reached its nadir of 17,691 bushels in 1996. It climbed briefly to 100,000 and subsided.

. . .

Hatcheries are gaining support. A Virginia study group recommended last year that the state encourage private business to build them.

Problems with disease and predation give hatchery production the advantage over wild oysters.

VIMS has developed genetically selected strains of oysters that resist diseases that continue to wipe out wild oysters. Hatcheries also can produce sterile oysters that put all their energy into growth, instead of reproduction.

Erskine noted that a hatchery can produce a reliable supply of baby oysters, or spat, year after year.

Hatcheries may also combat the latest threat to Virginia's frail oyster population: cownosed rays.

Hatchers and the marine resources commission are experimenting with a technique that allows disease-resistant oyster larvae to attach to oyster shells. The resulting cluster is often too much of a mouthful for rays.

Contact Lawrence Latané III at (804) 333-3461 or

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