- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Virginia approved the first sanctuary on the mid-Atlantic coast to protect sea grasses in 1998, but clam boats again are tearing up the beds without fear of penalty, a scientist told state regulators.
The reason is because the state never marked the boundaries of the 8,943-acre sanctuary in Chincoteague Bay, on the Eastern Shore near the Virginia-Maryland border, said Bob Orth, an aquatic-plants specialist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Authorities recently ticketed several clammers for dragging metal-toothed dredges through the sea grass beds in search of hard clams. The charges were thrown out of court because the sanctuary lacked legal definition, officials said.
"We figured we would give the watermen the benefit of the doubt, that they would know where to stay out of," Mr. Orth told the Virginia Marine Resources Commission Tuesday. "Oh, well, I guess that's life."
In response to more than 100 estimated incursions into these beds over the past two years, the VMRC voted Tuesday to mark the boundaries — and perhaps expand them by 700 acres.
A public hearing and vote is scheduled at VMRC's Sept. 25 meeting.
Sea grasses are important because they improve water quality and shelter crabs, scallops, clams and finfish.
Commission staff estimated that it will cost $5,000 to properly mark the sanctuary using existing channel markers and several new ones.
Mr. Orth hopes the commission expands the sanctuary to include areas on the western shore of Chincoteague Bay.
Watermen support marking the current boundaries of the sanctuary but have issues with an expansion, said Gerry Showalter, a commission staffer.
On Tuesday, the commission also approved another sanctuary on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It encompasses 400 acres of shallow bottom in South Bay, a tidal inlet off the Atlantic Ocean.
There, Mr. Orth and his students intend to plant an estimated 4 million seeds of eel grass to try to restore beds wiped out by storms and disease. That one-two punch, delivered in 1933, destroyed much of the sea grasses in coastal bays from North Carolina to New Jersey, Mr. Orth said. The only beds to come back on their own were in Chincoteague Bay, he said.

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