Va. watermen getting bearing back after Florence
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia’s aquaculturists and oystermen were back at work soon after rains and swelled seas associated with Hurricane Florence subsided.
The storm’s showers and surge washed ground sediments and pollutants into surrounding waters, the Open Oyster Season was about to get under way, and Virginia Department of Health officials gave area waterways a green light.
Contaminated runoff, a primary concern, as of Wednesday, Sept. 26, presented no water quality issues statewide, Virginia Department of Health Shellfish Division Director Keith Skiles said. The agency can for the most part predict, based on rainfall amounts, whether water quality issues will result, he said.
Department of Health employees boat through the state’s shellfishery waters each Monday through Thursday looking for fungal algal blooms, gathering water samples and testing for fecal coliform.
The agency collects some 1,000 water samples each week and during Hurricane Florence held daily field office conference calls to watch the track, Skiles said.
“We weren’t really affected,” Skiles said, pointing to North Carolina’s devastation.
Virginians have since the 1800s earned a living harvesting oysters. Aquaculturists and oyster fishermen throughout the state these days lease 100,000 acres of state-owned oyster grounds and in 2017 contributed $18.5 million in farm gate money, or the value of the product, minus the selling costs. The industry is highly regulated and fairly closely monitored.
“The stronger the waterway and cleaner the water, the better the oyster,” Lynnhaven River Oyster Company co-owner Jen Pace said. “We’re very lucky with where our oysterbeds sit.”
Pace and her husband, Chris, lease 15 acres from the state and farm raise 1 million oysters in two-level crates that float just beneath the river’s surface. Waters at the surface flow more readily than waters 2 to 3 feet nearer the bottom, Chris Pace said. Flowing waters as a result are typically cleaner than those that become stagnant, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The Paces are also among a growing number of aquaculturists who work year-round by growing from shell seed “triploid” oysters and selling them to fish houses, restaurants and wholesalers. Triploids are a reproduction of the state’s native Eastern oyster (crassotrea Virginica), and many aquaculturists use them because of their fast growth rate and their resistance to disease, Virginia Marine Resources Commission Fisheries Management Spokesperson Andrew Button said.
The bivalves grow to a fairly uniform 3 ½ inches within 16 months to a wild oyster’s two years, Chris Pace said. They feature three sets of chromosomes as compared with the diploid’s two and are virtually sterile. Because triploids devote their energy to developing their meat, the meat is better prepared to sustain its quality during warm summers, Button said.
Oyster fishermen are nevertheless required to adhere to time and shade restrictions between the months of May and September, when warm weather combined with salt water can cause foodborne illnesses such as vibrio, Skiles said.
Because oysters literally become the waters in which they’re located – each of them filtering some 50 gallons per day – those along the Lynnhaven River are known to be saltier. The northerly traveling waterway’s eastern and western branches unite west of where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The Paces boat to their cages daily, harvesting oysters in baskets that they rinse in waters back along the shore and then bag, tag and ice at 36 to 38 degrees F, Chris Pace said. Immediate post-harvest ice immersion for prolonged periods of time is considered by some a cost-effective way to help reduce the risk of vibrio without killing the oyster, a Nov 6, 2005 University of Florida Department of Food Science and Nutrition report in the Journal of Food Protection noted.
The Lynnhaven River Oyster Company vessel also undergoes monthly inspections. Virginia Marine Resources Commission representatives check detailed harvest logs, boat cleanliness, refrigeration units and make sure that shade tops are in order, Chris Pace said. Summer land-based oyster deliveries must be made aboard vehicles equipped with Virginia Department of Health-approved temperature-controlled storage.
Oysters expel what they cannot eat or digest – and murky waters and excessive algae growth are signs that water quality levels are beyond what oysters can handle. Local residents and businesses along waterways like the Lynnhaven, like public agencies and non-profit organizations, work to prevent that. They rely upon wastewater treatment facilities and encourage minimal boat maintenance and the use of man-made runoff absorbents near boat slips.
The City of Virginia Beach has along the Lynnhaven developed coastal buffers such as wetlands and forests intended to filter and absorb sediment and ground pollutants. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality tests waters every other month during incoming and outgoing tides for aspects such as salinity, water temperatures, nutritional bacteria such as E. coli and solids that become suspended and settle when sediments from soil and rocks wash into the water.
The Virginia Assembly as early as 1997 assigned the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to begin developing oysters such as those that the Paces cultivate near the water’s surface, and the the Marine Resources Commission encourages gardening and farming the bivalves for their economic and environmental benefits.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun affixing to river bottoms oyster reef sanctuaries that, while off limits to oyster harvest, can in part attract filter feeders. The Virginia General Assembly in 2001 likewise placed on state-owned grounds once inhabited by wild thick-shelled tertiary oysters and their thin-shelled quarternary counterparts bivalves native to Asia, where some marketing specialists forecast the country is to become a leader in electric vehicle production.
The US Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 established a “pollution diet” that sets nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment limits for the estuary and its tributaries.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration Plan, as part of that, is intended to restore oyster habitat and populations in 20 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has meanwhile refined laws for the October through February Open Oyster Season, when specific state-owned oyster grounds are open for limited permitted public harvest and more greatly limited commercial harvest. The commission is accepting applications for anyone who wants to garden or farm oysters for economic and environmental purposes.
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