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Monday, September 15, 2008

Virginia Watermen Take on Oyster Farming

By SCOTT HARPER | The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - With fewer and fewer wild oysters left to harvest in the Chesapeake Bay, two local watermen are trying their hand at a similar, but altogether different, trade - oyster farming.

With help from an environmental group, the watermen built their own holding tank out of fiberglass, bought 12 million specially bred baby oysters from a hatchery, got them to attach to recycled oyster shells and, on Monday, planted them in mesh bags on the bottom of the Lynnhaven River.

"I made a lot of money crabbing, but that's pretty much gone away," said Pete Nixon, a lifelong commercial fisherman from Norfolk, as he stacked dozens of shell-stuffed oyster bags onto his work boat. "You can't sit still in this business. I've got to keep moving, keep trying something new."

The experiment is the first of its kind on the Lynnhaven, a Virginia Beach waterway once renowned for its big, salty oysters. It also is the first time that such a seafood-farming venture has been directly overseen by watermen themselves, instead of orchestrated by a large company.

"It's a way to keep these guys working," said Tommy Leggett, an oyster scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia, which provided technical assistance and access to grant money for the project.

Nixon and his partner, John Meekins, could earn as much as $100,000 when the baby oysters grow into adults and are sold to restaurants and market houses--"hopefully by next Christmas, or maybe by the Super Bowl," Nixon said with a grin.

The watermen are using a different kind of native oyster, known as "spat-on-shell." Instead of floating freely, the babies, or spat, are allowed to attach to old shells before being planted into a waterway. This way, the larvae stand a better chance of survival in an environment dominated by disease, pollution and cow-nosed rays, sea creatures that can gobble hundreds of baby oysters for breakfast.

The babies also are sterile. This means they can grow to market size faster than regular oysters, which spend much of their energy on spawning.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and state marine officials have proven that sterile, spat-on-shell varieties can grow to maturity in 12 to 18 months, instead of the usual two or three years. When left in the water for so long, most native oysters will have died, succumbing to the diseases MSX and Dermo, which have ravaged Bay stocks to near extinction during the past 50 years.

Successful spat-on-shell experiments by seafood companies in waters off the Potomac River have led to a new wave of oyster farming, or aquaculture, in Virginia. But those ventures involved watermen as simple laborers and boat captains; the Lynnhaven experiment puts the watermen in charge.

"We want to see if the little guys can do it, too," Nixon said Monday. "Can we be profitable on small plots of river bottom, and with few resources at our disposal? That's the key to seeing other guys jump into this."

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Circle C Oyster Ranch

The Circle C Oyster Ranch is nestled in the heart of St. Mary's County on St. Jerome Creek.

Utilizing 200 ft of dock and 3.2 acres of surface water, Circle C raises oysters from free swimming, microscopic larvae all the way to market size. The dock supports 14 upwellers for seed production as well as a lift system for boat access and oyster harvest. The ranch currently boasts a shed for storage, office space and an indoor workshop. With 10 acres of land and 65 acres of water bottom rights, Circle C fully plans to expand further. In fact, there are several projects currently in the works. A hatchery to produce our own oyster larvae, giving us full control of all stages of our Lineback©'s life.

The Floating Oyster ReefTM

At the heart of Circle C's operation is the Floating Oyster ReefTM. Designed by CEO/President Richard Pelz, it is at the forefront of oyster aquaculture technology. One reef contains approximately 1000-1500 oysters and holds them just inches below the surface of the creek. 1000 oyster in only 30 square feet compares wonderfully to the Chesapeake average of 12 1/2 oysters per acre in the wild! Why does this system work? It works because it puts the oysters where the food is. Oysters eat algae that grows in Bay waters. The lions share of fresh algae, and the oxygen it produces, is found in the first 12-18 inches of water. By placing the oysters in that zone of food and oxygen, even a wild oyster's growth rate is bound to increase. In fact, Circle C has shown that wild oysters will as much as double their growth by placing them in our system. This is incredible enough, but when you couple the Floating Oyster ReefTM with Circle C's specially bred Lineback© oyster, the results are phenomenal. We have actually grown oysters from larvae to 4" in only 9 months and to 6" monsters in only 18!

The Oyster

The Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has long been considered to be the Chesapeake Bay's claim to fame and is a true delicacy in most cultures.

Over the last 15 years, Circle C has been perfecting its strain of eastern oyster, the Lineback©. We took several different genetic lines of oysters, chosen for growth rate, disease resistance and shape, and bred them into our original line. All things said and done, there is about 40 years of selective breeding behind our oyster! The result is the Lineback© oyster, the best oyster in the Bay. The Lineback© has been bred to have an extremely thin shell, to grow extremely fast, and to have a deep cup to it. The oyster grows so fast in fact, that when used in conjunction with the Floating Oyster ReefTM and our seed production system, we can take it from spawn to market in under 18 months! That is less than half the time for a wild oyster to get that big. In fact, every year we get more and more that grow to over five inches! A wild oyster would need five or six years to do that. The deep cup and extra thin shell means a higher meat to shell ratio. In fact, our oysters average about 32% more meat than the same size wild oyster. The thin shell also makes Circle C's Lineback© super easy to open. Instead of shucking the old fashioned way, just take a pair of scissors, snip off the bill, stick in a kitchen knife and presto, half shell oyster!

Good stuff!!!

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CHESAPEAKE BAY: Waterman claims solution to bay's oyster problem

By ANATH HARTMANN • Capital News Service

Richard Pelz, president of Circle C Oyster Ranch at St. Jerome Creek in Ridge, has a better idea for restoring the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population.

"(Maryland's) restoration efforts are going awful because they keep trying to do it the wrong way," Pelz said.

Oysters, decimated in the Chesapeake by pollution and disease, are best grown near the water's surface, he said, so they clear up turbidity and allow light to penetrate.

"If you put oysters in the bottom, or worse yet, in rocks on the bottom, they're removing oxygen, and therefore expanding the dead zone," he said. Dead zones are areas of the bay without oxygen.

Circle C Oyster Ranch

At Circle C Oyster Ranch, Pelz grows the Lineback, a breed of the native Eastern oyster he developed about 15 years ago. The company uses a system of floating oyster reefs that keep the shellfish just inches below the water's surface rather than on the bay floor, where most of the state sanctuaries keep their oysters.

But his ideas have not caught on, and scientists and environmentalists stood by Maryland's restoration methods during a Sept. 10 update before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Oceans and Wildlife.

"Oyster restoration is complex in a large ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay," Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay office, said in his hearing testimony. "Increasing the size and number of sanctuaries is appropriate."

The Eastern oyster has been declining in the bay since the mid-1980s because of past overharvesting, declining water quality and the appearance of MSX and Dermo, two parasitic diseases.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources operates 24 oyster sanctuaries in the bay, ranging in size from 5 acres to more than 5,000 acres. Yet the waterway's number of Eastern oysters is 1 percent of what it was just 50 years ago, according to the department.

Pelz has another contrarian view: The size limit imposed on watermen is contributing to the oyster's decline. Oysters smaller than three inches when harvested must be returned to the water.

"Oysters are funny critters -- they change sex when they reach maturity," Pelz said. At a growth rate of roughly an inch per year, the smaller oysters are all males, then after a year or so they become females, he said.

"So what . . . they're putting back in the beds are male (and) diseased. If you do that to any population -- take out the best every time -- it's going to go downhill."

Though Pelz said he is having no trouble making a living harvesting the Lineback oyster, which grows faster than some others, other Maryland watermen say they are struggling.

Mike Hamilton, once a successful bay waterman with his own seafood wholesale business, several years ago abandoned fishing and oyster-harvesting in favor of general contract work.

"There was not enough money in it," said Hamilton, owner of M. Hamilton & Sons. "I still buy seafood every now and then, I still sell it but . . . I very seldom go out and get it myself. I got kids in college. I need a certain amount of money."

Pelz said he has long believed the state's methods of oyster-restoration were doomed to failure but has not held out hope that the Lineback would become widely grown.

"It's embarrassing (for the state)," he said. "I'm not a scientist. I'm just a farmer."

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