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U.S. Senator visits Topping to see improved oyster industry

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Middlesex County supervisors Beth Hurd and Jack Miller (both seated) join U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (left) and others on last Friday’s tour of the Rappahannock River Oyster Company in Topping. The group also visited some public oyster rocks and sanctuaries on the Rappahannock River. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry Chowning

The recovery of the Rappahannock River oyster industry continues to attract political attention. On Friday, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine visited the Rappahannock River Oyster Company facilities at Topping and the public oyster grounds and oyster sanctuaries on the river.

Two Middlesex supervisors also took the tour along with media from throughout the state. The news is that preliminary 2012 oyster harvest figures indicate 320,000 bushels were harvested in 2012, a 29% increase over the 2011 harvest of 250,000 bushels.

Earlier in August, Governor Bob McDonnell and other state officials visited Kellum Seafood in Weems to talk about the improved oyster harvest.

The oyster harvest has increased tenfold over the past decade. In 2001 the total Virginia harvest was a dismal 23,000 bushels.

When he was Governor of Virginia several years ago, Kaine helped protect and foster the state’s oyster industry. He was also supportive of Governor Bob McDonnell and the Virginia General Assembly’s decision to allocate $2 million this year that went to mining fossil oyster shells from the James River and re-distributing them in sanctuaries and public oyster grounds to be used as “clutch” on beds. (Clutch is what baby oysters attach to as they grow into adults.)

On Friday, Kaine and others got an overview of two distinct styles of growing, harvesting and marketing oysters. Rappahannock River Oyster Company grows oysters in cages, sells oysters in the shell by the piece, and has an international marketing plan. Its oysters are sold all over the world to upscale restaurants.

Senator Kaine was extremely impressed with this firm’s marketing plan. “That’s a great concept,” he said. “And a wonderful way to market a Virginia product.”

Jim Wesson, manager of Virginia’s Oyster Replenishment Program run by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), said the state’s replenishment program provides significant ecological and economic benefits to Virginia. 

“A single adult oyster can purge up to 50 gallons of water a day,” he said. “Oyster reefs provide important forage and refuge habitat for invertebrates, as well as juvenile crabs and fin species.”

“Over the past five years of rotational harvest, the harvest of public oyster grounds has almost quadrupled, from 36,000 bushels in 2008 to 137,000 bushels in 2012,” he said.

Wesson estimated that by 2016, provided that the success continues, public oyster grounds will yield 200,000 bushels, and the total oyster harvest in Virginia could reach 500,000 bushels. The last time this was accomplished was in 1985 when over 500,000 bushels were harvested from Virginia waters.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 09.04.2013

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