RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia is shedding its late 19th century system of taxing oysters by the bushel for a user fee that will spare watermen mounds of paperwork and return the revenue generated by the fee back to the Chesapeake Bay to replenish public oyster stocks.
The new system, which begins July 1, will require a yearly fee and replace the monthly reports and paperwork that have been an annoyance to watermen and others in the business. The user fees apply to commercial oyster operations, not oyster “growers” who cultivate the hardshells for their own eating enjoyment or simply for the health of the bay.
The new fees range from $50 a year for people who harvest by hand on public oyster grounds to thousands of dollars annually for oyster shucking and packing houses.
The old system generated about $30,000 to $35,000 in taxes annually while the new user fee approach will raise approximately $300,000, said John M.R. Bull, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
“That goes right into oyster replenishment,” he said. While the state provided $2 million in the current budget for oyster replenishment, the amount of public support varies from year to year.
The General Assembly approved the user fee system, which was developed by industry representatives.
“It’s simpler, it’ll raise more money, it means less paperwork for those whose jobs it is to go out and catch oysters,” Bull said. “And it provides more money for oyster replenishment as well as economic and ecological benefits.”
The commission estimates that every $1 spent on oyster replenishment yields $7 in economic benefits, such as more jobs for shucking houses. For the bay, a single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day. “The more oysters in the water, the better,” Bull said.
Once bountiful in the Chesapeake, oysters have declined to historic lows over the past few decades because of pollution and diseases. Oyster farming, however, has been undergoing in a boom in Virginia.
The Shellfish Growers of Virginia represents 150 to 200 growers, said Michael Oesterling, the group’s executive director. While the growers were “somewhat concerned” that the user fees would be returned to public grounds, the industry embraces the user system, he said.
“The amount of time and effort the culture people were putting into complying with these regulations far exceeded the amount of money that they would be required to pay for the user fee,” Oesterling said. “With the user fee, you pay it once and you’re done for the year.”
The user fees would also apply to Gulf oysters that are shipped to shucking houses in Virginia.
While watermen will be spared steady payments for their harvest, they still will be required to file monthly harvest reports. The Marine Resources Commission uses the reports to manage the resource.