Winter oyster harvest is booming

Oystermen have come all the way from the Eastern Shore of Virginia this season to harvest Rappahannock River oysters. Before the freezing weather, oystermen were catching their limits by lunchtime. J&W Seafood in Deltaville and W.E. Kellum Seafood of Weems are buying oysters at the docks at Shores and Ruark Seafood on Robinson Creek near Urbanna. Photo by Larry Chowning

by Larry Chowning

URBANNA—Over 100 oyster boats are working on public oyster rocks in areas six and seven in the Rappahannock River.

They are harvesting their limits of 16 bushels to a boat before noon each day, reported oystermen up and down the river last week.

Areas six and seven range from Towles Point near Bertrand in Lancaster County going west to Smokey Point near Water View. On the Middlesex side, watermen are working out of Locklies, Urbanna, Robinson, LaGrange and Parrotts creeks.

“We are catching our limit by noon every day and they are beautiful oysters,” said oysterman David Robberecht of Cheriton on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Robberecht is working off Urbanna in his 38-foot deadrise boat, Three Sons. He is working out of Carter Creek and is moored and selling his oysters to W.E. Kellum Seafood at Weems.

His son, Will Robberecht, is working his boat out of Robinson Creek. He is moored at Shores and Ruark and selling to Kellum’s buyer on that creek. Kellum and Kevin Wade of J&W Seafood in Deltaville are the two buyers on Robinson Creek.

The Robberechts are among several Eastern Shore watermen who have come to oyster the public oyster rocks on the Rappahannock versus working public grounds on Tangier Sound, which is much closer to their homes.

“We get more days work in over here oystering in the river,” said D. Robberecht. “Tangier Sound is out in the [Chesapeake] Bay and we have more days than we want that we can’t work because of the wind and seas.”

This year’s limits are 8 bushels per licensed watermen per boat and each boat is allowed two licensed oystermen per boat. “We can catch 16 bushels to a boat,” said D. Robberecht. “Last year we could have three licenses to a boat, which meant we could catch 24 bushels per boat.”

For the 2017-18 season, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) passed a law allowing only two licensed watermen per boat. “They thought they were conserving the resource, but most of those watermen with licenses went out and bought themselves a boat,” said D. Robberecht. “We are seeing more boats this year than ever before and I think that’s the reason for it.”

Urbanna town administrator Holly Galley reported to the town council in December there are eight oyster boats leasing slips at the town marina.

“It’s great to see the oysters and the oystermen coming back to Urbanna,” she said.

Tommy Kellum of W.E. Kellum Seafood in Weems said it has been a long time since he has seen oysters this plentiful and fat.

“The oysters are beautiful,” he said. “We are shucking (at the firm’s oyster shucking house in Weems) about 120 gallons a day and so far we have market for every oyster we have shucked.”

Kellum said Rappahannock oysters are large but he is getting most of his extra selects and counts from oystermen working on the Nansemond River, a tributary of the James River.

“The comeback of Virginia’s oysters on our public oyster rocks is not isolated to the Rappahannock,” said Kellum. “It is just wonderful for Virginia’s seafood industry and for the economy of our area.”

Kellum noted that the Pilot House in Topping is housing and feeding several of the Eastern Shore oystermen and the entire area is profiting by oystermen being here.

“We were here three years ago and areas six and seven were not that great,” said D. Robberecht. “It sure looks like the public grounds over here are making a great comeback.”

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