- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the state’s oyster manager oppose a proposal that would allow Virginia oystermen using small dredges to work rich waters in the James and Rappahannock rivers.

Virginia regulators will have the final say today when they consider the proposed expansion of the use of so-called hand scrapes.

Oystermen are seeking the expansion because of a boomlet in harvest.

Hand scrapes can be dragged behind a boat to scoop oysters off the bottom. State regulations limit them to a width of 22 inches.

Jim Wesson, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s oyster manager, said he cannot endorse the plan to expand hand-scrape use in the James and Rappahannock rivers.

“The part of the James River they’re talking about opening up to hand scrapes is a national treasure,” Mr. Wesson told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“There is nowhere in the Chesapeake Bay, or the world, that has the density of oysters that part of the James has. Natural reefs of oysters still form there, and if you break them down with dredges, that will destroy it.”

The other area oystermen want to work is a sanctuary in the Rappahannock River below the Robert O. Norris Bridge, which carries state Route 3 between Lancaster and Middlesex counties.

Although not as productive as the James River, Mr. Wesson also wants that area off-limits to harvest. The commission created the sanctuary in 1999 to collect data on the effect of harvest on the shellfish, he said.

Tommy Leggett, a waterman and Chesapeake Bay Foundation oyster scientist, said large oysters surviving in the Rappahannock sanctuary have been there long enough to have withstood several years of exposure to diseases that have shrunk the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population.

Harvests of the Bay’s oyster population have plunged from millions of bushels to tens of thousands of bushels in the past 40 years because of parasite-causing diseases and other factors.

Virginia’s oyster harvest last year increased to 80,000 bushels, from the previous year’s 20,000 bushels, primarily because of weather that discouraged parasites.

Mr. Wesson predicted that watermen will catch about 80,000 bushels again this year, but warned that the bonanza will end.

“These past two years have been a gift of nature — they’re not a turnaround,” he said.

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