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Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

Shortly after I began serving on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission in 1998, my friend Betty Riley called me to say that she had found a dead nutria in one of her crab pots. She was concerned that it could have been one of a large herd, and questioned if the commission should know about it, as she knew that nutria were quite destructive to native aquatic habitats.

At the time, my knowledge of nutria was limited, and we agreed that we would each try to find out more about them, thus began our parallel searches to unveil the presence of a species that epitomizes the meaning of the word, “invasive.” 

In those dawning days of the internet, we did not have the ready research tools that we do today. From speaking with several professors from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences in Gloucester, I learned that indeed nutria are an invasive species, native to South America, far from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.  

They are smaller than beavers and larger than muskrats. When I first saw Betty’s “catch,” I initially thought, incorrectly, that it was a muskrat. At the end of the 19th century, nutria were brought to California and the Gulf Coast of America to meet the growing demand for fur apparel that would be cheaper than mink.  The nutria multiplied and spread rapidly, and ultimately began appearing in Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Unlike beavers and muskrats, nutria are extremely hard on our native environment, greatly upsetting the ecology of nature’s balance. Although they are vegetarians, they forage on sea grasses and other plants that provide homes for numerous species of aquatic life.  

When they are finished “mowing the underwater lawn,” they leave the site subject to severe erosion. Particularly here in Virginia where we have been trying for decades to reestablish aquatic vegetation to mitigate erosion problems and to provide a greater habitat for crabs, shrimp, oysters and fish, nutria have had a chilling effect.

For many years in Louisiana where nutria are considered to be among the most despised varmints, the blame for their arrival was attributed to E. A. McIlhenney, the founder of the Tabasco hot sauce company that bears his name. According to local legend, he imported nutria from Venezuela to establish a fur trade, but some of them escaped and began taking over the bayous. That theory has come to be debunked as folklore by modern historians, all to Mr. McIlhenney’s benefit.

In the many conversations I have had with Betty over the last quarter of a century, we always began by asking each other if we had any new information on the “invader.” Betty’s crab pot member most likely was a descendent of ones that came into Chesapeake Bay via cargo ships in transit to Baltimore.  

Betty and her late husband, Dabney, who died in 2017 and to whom she was married for 70 years, were natives of Lynchburg. They spent most of their adult lives working in Richmond, and since 1988 they have lived overlooking Ingram Bay out into the Chesapeake. She was an exceptionally perceptive person, who enjoyed making comments on the world’s passing scene. 

 Last week Betty died at the age of 95, a genuinely beloved part of the Northern Neck community. In this column, if readers think I have written more about nutria than about Betty, I can assure them that Betty would want it that way, and much of this item can be sourced directly to her.

Betty Curlee Riley, July 21, 1928 – November 25, 2023. R.I.P.

Rappahannock Record Staff
Rappahannock Record Staff
From the Rappahannock Record news team

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