- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

KINSALE, Va. (AP) — Gloucester waterman Jimmy Brown pulled a load of oysters from the Yeocomico River that could help keep the Chesapeake Bay oyster on holiday tables for years to come.

The shellfish were no bigger than a dime after growing to maturity in 14 months in the river on the Northern Neck.

But waterman Don Allen Jenkins, who was culling the oysters Mr. Brown tonged from the river, said that was the most oysters he had seen in a while.

“I’d like to see more of it,” he said.

The shellfish are called “spat-on-shell” oysters and were raised in a hatchery.

They were put in an experimental bed to test whether they could be grown in open water and remain protected from hungry rays.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Bevans Oyster Co. — one of only four or five major shucking houses left in Virginia — are conducting the experiment.

The group hopes to help the oyster industry increase harvests while growing more native oysters in Virginia water.

The experiment also is an alternative to growing the non-native Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, which is disease resistant.

Ronnie Bevans, owner and founder of the Bevans Oyster Co., was pleased by the results. Mr. Bevans said he would like to put out 10 times the amount of oysters he did this year.

The previous day, Mr. Brown, Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Jenkins’ son — all working for Mr. Bevans — tonged 55 bushels from the Yeocomico.

That was far more than Mr. Brown’s best day on the Potomac this year, 33 bushels.

From the 400 bushels of oyster shells covered with spat — baby oysters — placed in the water for this experiment, more than 1,000 bushels could be harvested, said Tommy Leggett of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Mr. Bevans said he normally is pleased to harvest 25 percent of the bushels of seed oysters he puts in the water.

Getting a return several times what you put out is something “I’ve only heard my grandfather talk about,” Mr. Bevans said.

The first batch of oysters Mr. Bevans brought in yielded 6.9 pints of oyster meat per bushel.

The best oyster grounds in Maryland give him 6.5 to 7 pints per bushel, Mr. Bevans said.

Here’s how the experiment worked: In a hatchery, microscopic spat are attached to oyster shells, about a dozen to a shell.

They are kept at the hatchery for a few months until each baby oyster grows to about the size of a fingernail.

When the oysters are clustered on a shell, it’s difficult for rays to eat them.

Mr. Leggett said the results of the experiment shouldn’t be viewed as something that’s going to rescue the oyster industry, but as one more method that could help the population and industry rebound.

Mr. Bevans plans to put out many more spat-on-shell oysters next year, using spat from the Great Wicomico River.

“Whatever it takes to have oysters readily available,” he said.

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