Oyster boats return to the Rappahannock
by Larry S. Chowning
The oyster season opened on the Rappahannock River October 1 and the area known as Drumming Ground and other grounds inside the Corrotoman River have been loaded with oyster boats.
Tommy Kellum of Kellum Seafood in Weems has 20 oyster boats moored at his dock, and Ampro Shipyard next door has 10 more. Oystermen have come from Gloucester, Mathews, Middlesex, Lan-caster, Northumberland and Gloucester counties and Tangier Island to work the grounds.
“There are at least 45 oyster boats working in the river and the last time we’ve seen that was in 1988,” said Kellum. “We are having people call us wondering what all those boats are doing. They’ve never seen anything like it.”
The oystermen are working small 22-inch wide oyster scrapes out of small and large boats. Usually, there are two men to a boat and, if both have licenses, they can harvest up to 16 bushels a day. The two-man rigs are catching about 12 bushels a day, and the single man rigs are catching 6 bushels.
Oysters are selling for $35 a bushel at the dock and Kellum said he is buying around 180 bushels a day from 20 boats. Kellum Seafood has a 40-person shucking house, which is the second largest in this area.
Some of the Rappahannock River oysters are also going to the half-shell market and are being boxed and shipped out still in the shell, said Kellum.
Kellum said the first week or so oystermen were catching their limit, but catches have fallen off since then. He said there has been an increased effort by local watermen because the price of James River oysters has fallen. “A lot of the boys working the James have moved up here,” he said.
On December 1, the boats will move to the Middlesex side of the river and work the area from Parrott’s Island to North End on the south side of the Rappahannock. “There should be oysters there,” said Kellum, “and there should be larger oysters than what we have over here, but I don’t think there will be as many.”
Kellum said there are a lot of 2 1/2-inch oysters on Drumming Ground that cannot be harvested. The size limit is 3 inches. He is concerned that 45 boats might be too many and wonders how long the grounds will continue to be productive.
Rufus Ruark of Shores and Ruark Seafood in Middlesex County said he only has one boat with a two-man crew working from his dock. They are catching anywhere from 9 to 11 bushels per day, he said.
Ruark said most Rappahan-nock oysters are being sold to Kellum’s, but there are other buyers from Mathews and Gloucester.
“All of these boats are a good sight to see,” said Kellum. “The area where they are working used to be fronted by two farms. There are housing developments there now, and most of those people have never seen anything like this.”