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Huge oyster reef being built in the Piankatank

On Wednesday, July 18, men aboard the “Capt. Ellery” of W.E. Kellum Seafood in Weems used high pressure water cannons to broadcast crushed granite over 15 acres in the Piankatank River to create a foundation base on which oysters can grow. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry Chowning

One hundred tons of granite were dumped near the mouth of the Piankatank River on Wednesday, July 18, in an effort to build the largest oyster reef “on the planet,” said Andy Lacatell, Virginia Chesapeake Bay Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Richmond.

The oyster planter “Capt. Ellery,” owned by W.E. Kellum Seafood in Weems, used water cannons to off-load granite stone in two 50-ton increments to the river bottom. The granite is a foundation for growing oysters in what is planned to be a 250-acre reef. The 100 tons of granite off-loaded covered 15 acres of the reef, said Alex Novak of TNC.

The deadrise vessel “Linda Carol,” owned by local captain Shannon Green, carried a group of conservationists, politicians and dignitaries out to the reef to celebrate the recent allocation of $1.5 million to the state’s oyster restoration program by the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam.

TNC and Virginia Commonwealth University are partnering on the reef, along with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), which manages the state fisheries. This particular segment of the reef encompasses 15 acres and will cost approximately $200,000. TNC and VMRC are providing the funding and VCU is providing baby oysters (spat) to go on top of the granite. 

When the reef is completed, 3,750 tons of granite will be spread over four sites.

As part of the celebration on July 18, 12 bushels of spat-on-shell were dumped overboard as a symbolic start to the second phase of the program—planting spat-on-shell across the entire reef. 

The Piankatank River is one of the cleanest rivers in Virginia and has a long history of being one of the top “incubator” rivers for growing seed oysters. The only river that is considered better for growing seed is the James River.

Oysters once thrived on the Piankatank and Rappahannock rivers. However, MSX and Dermo, two deadly oyster diseases, along with over-harvesting and pollution, brought the industry to its knees in the 1980s. Of late, statewide the oyster stock has had a remarkable rebound due to better methods of growing oysters, development of disease-resistant oysters, and better management of the resource.

Historically, Middlesex has prospered by having this natural resource right at its doorstep. While the Piankatank is best known for growing seed oysters, the Rappahannock River is one of the best rivers in the world for growing tasty, market-size oysters. 

posted 07.26.2018

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