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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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