- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Marine Resources Commission today plans to consider raising oyster limits and moving up the harvest schedule to help Virginia oyster packers cope with diminished supply in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The proposal would increase from eight bushels to 12 bushels the amount that watermen pulling dredges can catch in a day.

In addition, the commission could open all harvest areas Oct. 1, rather than staggering the dates.

The two measures, however, also could deplete Virginia’s beds of harvestable oysters by December.

“But the need is so grave right now,” said Jim Wesson, the commission’s oyster manager.

Officials need to make as many oysters available as possible to carry packing houses until the Texas season starts on Nov. 1, Mr. Wesson said.

“October is the month that the industry is going to be most direly in need of oysters,” he said.

Virginia shuckers get between 70 percent and 80 percent of their oysters from the Gulf region — a dependency triggered by a mid-1980s epidemic that sent Chesapeake Bay shellfish populations into a downward spiral.

When Katrina flattened parts of the Gulf Coast late last month, it also devastated oyster beds, the boats and other harvest infrastructure.

Two-thirds of Louisiana’s extensive oyster beds were “heavily impacted,” said Patrick Banks, who is in charge of oyster management for Virginia’s fisheries department.

The hurricane dealt a harsh blow to an already limping industry.

Only about 15 oyster packing houses operate in the state, mostly on the Northern Neck, Eastern Shore and Middle Peninsula. A generation ago, the industry counted at least 100.

The remaining houses have been left to haggle over meager Virginia harvests.

Last year’s catch is expected to total at least 80,000 bushels. That’s a modern record and far greater than the previous year’s 23,000-bushel harvest.

Yet harvests in the 1960s and 1970s regularly reached 1 million bushels or more.

As a result, Virginia packers have clamored for the introduction of a non-native oyster species in the Bay.

Limited tests using sterile ariakensis oysters, which are native to China, found they withstand fatal Dermo and MSX diseases.

In turn, 10 Virginia growers are growing 1 million of the sterile oysters again this year at closely monitored test sites.

Virginia, Maryland and the Army Corps of Engineers are conducting an environmental-impact study on the possibility of introducing a breeding population of ariakensis oysters in the Bay. Originally due in July, the study’s conclusion has been postponed to January.

What oysters come out of the Gulf states this fall could cost more than in the past.

For now, longtime packers like James Headley dredge what oysters they can from private beds.

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