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Va. opens more of bay to oyster harvesting

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia has opened more Chesapeake Bay waters to oyster harvesting this month, anticipating greater demand for the bay’s meager oyster stocks because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission historically has opened public waters to oyster harvesting in stages through the fall and winter months, starting Oct. 1. This year, the commission agreed to an industry request to open up more of the bay and its tributaries to oyster boats that use power dredges and individuals with hand tongs.

“An October opening for Virginia is going to give them a jump on the market that already is paying higher than normal prices for oysters because they’re in scarcer supply,” commission spokesman John M.R. Bull said Tuesday.

Large areas of commercial fishing have reopened in the Gulf, but consumer demand for Gulf seafood has waned and so have prices. The wider bay opening gives Virginia oystermen about a one-month jump on the Gulf’s oyster season. The change was first reported by the Daily Press of Newport News.

John Meekins was working his leased oyster reefs Tuesday in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach. While Virginia oysters are favored by purists for their high salinity level, he said, more plentiful Gulf oysters have traditionally been critical to the shucking houses along the bay.

Meekins, who hand-picks his oysters for local restaurants, said he welcomes the higher prices for Virginia oysters but is mindful of the economic disaster confronting his counterparts along the Gulf coast.

“I don’t like to flourish off of other people’s misfortune,” he said.

The bay’s oyster population has plummeted to 1 or 2 percent of historic highs, primarily because of diseases that attack the oyster and water quality issues. The diseases pose no threat to humans.

Virginia’s annual oyster harvest totaled more than 4 million bushels a half century ago but declined to 103,000 bushels last year.

“We’re holding on by our fingertips, and that’s where we’ve been for several decades now,” Bull said. “These diseases kill these oysters regardless. Our management policy has been it’s better to harvest these adult oysters as opposed to letting them go to waste.”

Blue crabs are another story, and a part of the decision to speed the opening of bay waters to oysters.

Watermen say an abundance of crabs has depressed the market. Some who crab pushed for the wider oyster harvest so they could join in.

Joe Palmer, who also works the Lynnhaven, hauled in 10 bushels of crabs from 70 pots on Monday, then 11 bushels on Tuesday. He sells his crabs to local restaurants and seafood stores.

“I’ve got established markets, but a lot of the guys, they can’t sell their stuff,” he said. He said he has seen a “dramatic increase” in the crab population.

Bull said, “In some regards, we’ve done our job almost too well. We’ve rebuilt the population so well that there are millions of crabs out there, more than there used to be.”

Virginia and Maryland have restricted seasons and licenses to ease pressures on crabs, which have doubled their population over the past two years.

Bull said the commission will closely watch the oyster harvest and evaluate the new management approach.