Crowded oyster grounds causing safety concerns


by Larry Chowning

URBANNA—Local oystermen working on public oyster grounds have the daily challenge of dredging up enough oysters to make a day’s wage, and also not getting run over by the mass of boats working side-by-side on the grounds.

In an effort to maintain a sustainable fishery, Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) alternates the rotation of public oyster grounds on three-year cycles. After harvest time, grounds are closed, reseeded and left to nature’s hands for three years. The next year oystermen work beds that are at the top of the rotation. This method has worked and has provided steady annual employment for the nearly 1,000 licensed oystermen in the state, but has at times created a less than safe work-place environment.

Virginia’s oyster industry has grown from a low of 24,000 bushels harvested statewide in 2003 to a high of 659,000 bushels in 2014 with a dockside value of $33.8 million. Licenses in the public fisheries have grown from 661 in 2013, to 877 in 2014, to 991 in 2015.

Oystermen work a small 22-inch-wide, efficient dredge that is dragged on the river bottom behind their oyster boats. Boats cruise back and forth across grounds and sometimes as many as 150 boats work a small area. Oystermen not only have to look out for boats crossing their path, or running into them, but they also have to watch out for their dredge lines getting tangled with those on other boats.

Oysterman Ricky Walton of Locust Hill was involved in a nearly fatal accident in January when his dredge lines got tangled with another boat. As the two captains were trying to get the dredge lines free, a mate aboard the other boat fell into the water between the boats.

“The water was cold and he panicked,” said Walton. “We got him up twice and he fell back into the water. The third time we got him to grab the rope on the dredge lines and we hauled him up.”

Two years ago Walton also was involved in a collision when he was oystering on Water View Bar. “I looked down for a second and when I looked up, there was a 42-foot wooden deadrise right in front of me,” he said. “I locked the boat up and turned so we hit on the sides. If we had had a dead-on hit, he would have either turned me over or cut me in half.”

Three years ago on the Drumming Grounds in the Rappahannock River two large deadrise oyster boats collided, caving in the side of one of the boats. Oyster buyer Dickie Owens of J&W Seafood in Deltaville said, “You’ve got these little boats out there that when the captains of larger boats turn their heads and then look back, the little boats are right across their bows. The smaller boats are hard to see over the bow of the larger boats because captains are sitting up high in their pilothouses. What happens sometimes is that the larger boats get messed up when trying to get out of the way of the smaller boats and end up running into another larger boat. I’ve been preaching for years and no one seems to want to hear it, that VMRC needs to open up more and larger grounds to give the watermen more room to work.”

Owens said there are grounds in the James River and Tangier Sound large enough to handle a large fleet, whereas the York and Rappahannock rivers have smaller grounds.

“They opened up a section on the York River this year and it was so small that oystermen caught all the oysters in two days and the boats had to leave and go back to work on the James River,” he said.

Urbanna oysterman Lee Walton said the size of the grounds is not always the problem. “Even when we are able to work in large areas, it doesn’t always mean there are oysters across the entire bar,” he said. “You can work an area where one boat is catching mud while others, just two or three boat links away, are hauling in oysters. Sometimes we work close because that’s where the oysters are.

“In January, we were working on the York River in a real tight area and I heard one boy say he had spent more time in reverse that day to keep from getting hit [by other oyster boats] than going forward [dredging for oysters],” said Lee Walton.

“If VMRC would let us spread out we wouldn’t work an area to death and we would not have all the boats in one small space,” he said. “We’ve got eight public areas on the Rappahannock River. Instead of rotating all the areas at once and letting us spread out over the entire river, VMRC opens each area at different times, forcing us to work all jammed up.”

VMRC officials, however, do not see the problem being solved by opening more oyster grounds. Instead, they have indicated the problem is having too many oystermen. Dr. Jim Wesson, in charge of the oyster management program in Virginia, said he agrees there is a safety problem and it has grown as more oystermen have come back into the fishery.

“This was not a problem in 2006-07, the first season we started the rotation cycle,” said Wesson. “We had about 200 active oystermen who came out that first year, but when they started catching oysters it grew to nearly 1,000 this season. It is a volunteer fishery. No one makes them go out there and, I agree, it is not always safe and there are too many oystermen, but they need to regulate themselves.”

Working shifts

Wesson said he has suggested to oystermen they should work in shifts, which would eliminate all of them being out on the grounds at once. “They can fish from sunrise to 2 p.m.,” he said. “At the start of the season, oystermen are catching their limit [of eight bushels] in two to three hours. They could go out in two shifts and everyone would still catch the limit.”

Wesson said oystermen are trying to “angle it” to get VMRC to open areas sooner in the rotation. “These beds need time to come back and without a long enough rotation time the public oyster fishery will die.”

VMRC is making an effort to lower the number of Virginia oystermen working. The commission met in August 2016 in Newport News and unanimously voted to maintain a moratorium, started in February 2016, on the sale of new oyster licenses for working public oyster grounds.

The commission noted there will be no new gear license sales until the number of license fee holders goes below 600. VMRC’s plan introduces stricter regulations on the ability of current watermen to transfer a license. The new rules state that individuals may transfer a license only to immediate family members or to another individual “if the transferring individual has 40 or more days of oyster harvesting during the previous calendar year.” If not, the license cannot be transferred and it is dropped from the system.

The number of days worked will be determined from oyster-buying records.

Over time, this new rule is designed to eliminate part-time oystermen who work less than 40 days from being able to transfer their licenses, said Wesson. So, when they leave the fishery, it eliminates their license from the fishery.

“The problem is going to take a decade of attrition [of licenses] for our plan to lower the number of oystermen working to make much of a difference,” said Wesson. “In the meantime, oystermen may think strongly when going out on these smaller grounds of working in shifts. That’s going to mean they will have to come together and work it out amongst themselves as to who works when.”

After 25 years of managing Virginia’s oyster fishery, Dr. Jim Wesson retired from VMRC on January 31, 2017. He was interviewed for this story on January 30.