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Monday, January 26, 2009

Oystering - a Skeleton of its History


Billy Lett uses 16-foot tongs to pull in a load of oysters in about 7 feet of water.

Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population was so abundant that Indians named the bay Chesepiook, or “great shellfish bay.“

Indians and European settlers easily collected oysters to eat.

Oysters kept many Jamestown settlers from starving.

The bay’s oyster fishery became the largest in the world in the late 1800s.

Its plight:

Today, the bay’s oyster population is estimated to be 1 percent or less of its size in the late 1800s.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only were oysters valuable as food, but their shells were an important building material.

Watermen took all the oysters and shells they could get.

With the reefs nearly wiped out, shell-less baby oysters found few places to take hold. That devastated reproduction.

Hope, trouble:

In the late 1920s, people began trucking in rocks from the west, and oyster shells were no longer needed for construction. State workers started tossing shells back in the water.

Oysters began coming back. Virginia’s landings topped 4 million bushels by the late 1950s.

Then diseases called MSX and Dermo, harmless to people, began killing oysters just before they reached market size.

Also, development along the bay and its rivers creates pollution that kills oysters and erosion that smothers them in mud.

The light of a cold dawn revealed an endangered species on the James River -- waterman Rodgers Green of Gloucester.

Green catches oysters the old-fashioned way, with 16-foot tongs that resemble two rakes attached like scissors.

Disease, pollution and long-ago overharvesting have sunk Virginia's oyster population to about 1 percent of a century ago. For Green, 55, thoughts of the future leave a bad taste in his mouth.

"This is about the last of it," Green said aboard his 36-foot workboat, the Donna Lisa. "I can't see nothing to encourage the younger generation to even try to get into it."

In the 1920s, thousands of oyster boats worked the slightly salty James in southeastern Virginia. In the 1980s, there were hundreds. Now, a big day would be 20, and on this morning only three were in sight.

"Oystering on the James is just a skeleton of its history right now," said Jim Wesson, head of oyster restoration for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

People familiar with the rocky James in Richmond would not recognize the waterway that Green and friend Billy Lett worked -- 5 miles wide, giant sky above.

Lett pulled up some oysters, swung the tongs close by Green's head and dumped the catch with a clatter on a wooden platform called the culling board.

There, Green's strong hands broke market-size oysters from masses of mussels, barnacles and too-small oysters, then swept the remains overboard.

At mid-morning, the temperature reached about 40, with little wind. In the brogue of the watermen, the river was "cam," or calm -- just right for catching "arsters."

The oyster was once so abundant in the bay region that huge piles of them and their shells -- variously called reefs, rocks, shoals or bars -- posed hazards to boats.

Parts of the James today, such as Wreck Shoal and Horsehead Shoal, were named after oyster reefs, which loomed just below the surface or, at low tide, jutted slightly above water.

Indians and early settlers waded to hand-pick oysters. Colonists took up tonging, and more-effective, mechanized dredges joined tongers' boats after the Civil War. By the end of the 1800s, the bay region's oyster fishery became the largest in the world, stocking restaurants from New York to San Francisco.

In the late 1800s, Virginia watermen harvested between 6 million and 8 million bushels a year. Today, the annual catch totals a meager 20,000 to 80,000 bushels.

On a typical day, Green and Lett collect eight to 10 bushels, which they sell for about $30 a bushel. After subtracting for gas and other expenses, the men made about $135 each.

A decade or so ago, Green said, "We'd catch twice that many in half the amount of time."

Chesapeake oysters are important to more than the palate and pocketbook. They filter dirt and other impurities from water. Their reefs provide homes for small crabs, fish and young oysters.

"Oysters are like coral reefs," said Tommy Leggett, an oyster scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group. "They provide a lot of the same ecological services."

The bay, like Rodgers Green, needs the oyster badly.

Since 1993, Virginia has spent about $40 million to bring back the oyster, doing such things as creating artificial reefs to which young oysters could attach.

During that time, the oyster declined an additional 60 percent. The main culprit was diseases called MSX and Dermo, harmless to people, that kill oysters as they approach market size.

The diseases, the first of which surfaced in the late 1950s, have been particularly deadly over the past two decades.

Oysters spawn in summer, producing shell-less, microscopic babies that float about before attaching to oyster shells. Then they grow their own shells and help build the reef.

The James historically produced oysters in huge numbers. Among other reasons, an unusual movement of the James' tidal waters doesn't take baby oysters far away. They remain close to their parents, increasing the odds that they can find shells to which they can attach and grow.

Through the decades, the James River oyster has never been particularly popular with diners. Some said they have a gray, snotty look.

But the James was a hot market for "seed oysters" -- tiny ones that buyers dropped in other rivers to harvest later.

The James declined as a source of seed oysters in recent years because, after all the effort of moving the young oysters, they ended up succumbing to disease.

The James, for all its troubles, has fought back. A roughly 5-mile stretch of the river near Newport News is salty enough for oysters but not for the diseases. There, the diseases infect the oysters but don't kill them. The oysters in that stretch produce the closest thing to natural reefs you can find anywhere, experts say.

"It's a national treasure," said Wesson of the marine resources commission. "It's just too unique to take any chance on losing it. There is just nowhere like it."

For that reason, the state does not allow mechanized oyster dredges there. But tongers like Green, who are less destructive, work that area for market oysters.

Raised by his grandparents, Green became a waterman at 13. "Granddaddy wasn't able to work, so I had to pretty well do it to take care of the family." His schooling ended in sixth grade.

Years of tonging have damaged Green's back, and the work often pains his wrists and forearms, a condition watermen call "tongitis."

But you can tell Green and Lett enjoy being on the water, where they have no boss and no time clock.

"It's the onliest thing I know how to do," Green said.

The men bantered as they worked, telling tales of the time Green tried to put a dead possum in Lett's truck, and of the day Lett pulled up a Navy bombshell from the Potomac River. Lett whistled at a loon, trying to make it call.

"This is the type of work where you take the bitter with the sweet," Lett said.

In hopes of restoring the industry, some people want to release an Asian oyster in the bay region; others say it could drive out the few remaining native oysters. Some believe the answer may be finding disease-resistant natives and growing them in cages.

Green hopes he can keep tonging James River oysters. On his boat, he pried one open. It looked tan and succulent.

For the record, it was delicious.


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