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The $3.8M Oyster reef being created in Fishing Bay

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On Friday May 30, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (toward left, facing) toured the oyster grounds on Fishing Bay with state officials, oyster businessmen and members of the press on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission vessel “J.B. Baylor.” The shoreline of Fishing Bay is in the background.  (Photo by Larry Chowning)

Governor watches on

by Larry Chowning

A $3.8 million oyster reef is being created just inside the mouth of Fishing Bay on the Piankatank River. The project is being funded by a public/private partnership between Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), the Nature Conservancy, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The project kicked off Friday, May 30, at Narrows Marina on Gwynns Island in Mathews County when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe accepted a $500,000 check for the project from Michael Lipford, the Virginia executive director of the Nature Conservancy.

The Piankatank River is one of only a few rivers in Virginia where baby oysters (spat) grow quicker and healthier than in most places. The James River is the main oyster seed growing river in Virginia, and the Rappahannock and York rivers and Virginia’s Potomac River tributaries are considered better waters for growing oysters to market size.

The Governor toured the Fishing Bay reef site Friday afternoon with a delegation from the Corps, Nature Conservatory and the press in VMRC’s “J.B. Baylor,” a fiberglass deadrise boat.

The oyster reef is being made of “clean ground concrete” the size of baseballs. Concrete is being used instead of traditional oyster shells for “cultch,” which is a foundation created for oyster larvae to attach and grow.

Andy Lacatell, project manager with the Nature Conservancy, said using concrete allows the state to conserve oyster shells, which are used for oyster aquaculture operations and VMRC’s annual oyster replenishment program.

The Piankatank reef is an oyster sanctuary and is part of a statewide project to restore oysters to 10 state tributaries by 2025. The seed from the Fishing Bay reef will be harvested later and carried to other locations to grow to maturity, said VMRC oyster specialist Jim Weston.

Oysters are filter feeders and are considered to have one of the important roles in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Since 2001 Virginia’s commercial oyster harvest has increased more than tenfold. In 2001, only 23,000 bushels were harvested. In the 2012-13 season, it is estimated that nearly 400,000 bushels were harvested.

Just a few years ago, Virginia seafood dealers were having to buy oysters from the Gulf of Mexico because not enough were being harvested here. Now, Virginia oysters are helping to fill an out-of-state demand.

In the heyday of the 1950s, Virginia waters produced 2.5 million bushels of commercially-harvested oysters annually.

posted 06.04.2014

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