- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

RICHMOND (AP) — About 50 boats cruised through the James River, with watermen hoping to mark the first day of the oyster catching season with hearty hauls.

They left empty-handed.

The dry weather that set the stage for oyster-killing parasites was to blame for catches Monday that were as much as 90 percent dead, environmental specialists said.

They say there will be some oysters in upcoming weeks, “but it’s not going to support any great fishery like it’s done the past two years,” said Jim Wesson, oyster manager for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The cause is an old foe that’s been picking off oysters and making life miserable for watermen throughout the Chesapeake for two decades — MSX and Dermo parasites.

Virginia’s oyster harvest, once millions strong, has waned since the mid-1980s, when the lethal diseases first began striking in earnest. Things seemed to turn around, however, a few years back.

Last year’s harvest reached 100,000 bushels, the highest in years.

But MSX and Dermo have made a return, spurred by dry weather this summer that raised water salinities to levels that encourage the parasites, Mr. Wesson said.

Louisiana’s new harvest-season structure offers watermen an extra hurdle. Virginia oyster packers increasingly have relied on that state’s Gulf Coast harvests.

Now Louisiana has closed its season until Nov. 15.

“We were hoping there would be enough Virginia oysters to carry [packers] over” until they could receive Louisiana shipments, Mr. Wesson said.

Poor crab catches this summer had watermen hoping for a good oyster season to recover.

Monday, their hopes were all but dashed.

Billy Belvin of Gloucester County scoured the river for five miles below Menchville, pulling his hand scrape across oyster beds where oysters were thriving as late as this summer.

He was hoping to meet his limit — 30 bushels a day. He and his crew ended the day with one bushel.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Mr. Belvin said.

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