Delmarva Farmer

NRCS available to assist oyster operations (Keeping the Farm)

(Editor’s note: John Markon is a public affairs technician for Virginia NRCS.)

Oystering could be the most traditional of all the forms of agriculture practiced in Virginia.
There’s something timeless and classic about the familiar view of a waterman aboard a weatherbeaten skiff outlined against the rising or setting sun.
Which isn’t to say there’s never anything new in the industry.
In fact, some recent changes made to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service partnership program with Virginia Marine Resources Commission have the potential to spark additional growth in the state’s oyster population, which is still rebounding from the catastrophic Chesapeake Bay oyster blight of the mid-1980s.
According to Jenny Templeton, NRCS district conservationist in Accomac, one of the most significant changes will promote natural recruitment of the bivalves and expand the number of oyster farmers that can participate in the program.
In the past, the program required an “aquaculture” operation to restore the bed with shell and then plant an overlay of living oysters produced by introducing oyster larvae into tanks containing a substrate of oyster shell, mirroring (and speeding up) a natural process that occurs in open waters.
Natural recruitment bypasses the tanks and provides for restoration of beds in areas designated by the VMRC as promising oyster habitat and leased to watermen.
Changes also allow for using material other than oyster shell for the base substrate.
VMRC approved and permitted rock can now be used in oyster bed construction.
“Previously, the only approved method required an overlay of spat-on-shell,” Templeton said, “which involves introducing larvae into a tank and then waiting until the larvae attach to the shells and mature into the ‘spat’ stage before returning them to the open water. Restoring the bed and allowing natural regeneration requires less labor and less equipment. It should open the industry up to more people and should produce more oysters, which is a good thing even if you don’t enjoy eating them.”
Like many other species of shellfish, oysters gather nutrients from the water around them, thus serving as filtration devices for their immediate surroundings.
A larger oyster population has no downside and plenty of upside, both for oyster lovers and for the overall water quality of the Chesapeake Bay.
Virginia has regained its position as the East Coast’s No. 1 oyster-producing state and third nationwide.
Even though oysters are harvested along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, those coming from Virginia waters have a distinct taste that remains in high demand.
“I would say ‘tastes’ rather than ‘taste,’” Templeton said. “On the Eastern Shore, our seaside oysters definitely have a saltier taste than the bayside ones. It’s not a problem for me because I like them both – usually raw with a little hot sauce, or maybe Rockefeller style.”
“Virginia, including NRCS and its conservation partners, is utilizing every conservation tool in the toolbox,” added Dr. Edwin Martinez Martinez, NRCS’ state conservationist. “There’s a lot happening in the state to assist our oyster producers and we at NRCS are appreciative and excited about it.”
NRCS aid for oyster producers remains a fairly recent development, dating only to 2013.
“Adding aquaculture to NRCS’ definition of agriculture was a big thing in this area,” Templeton said. “It’s also something we did that really makes me proud to work for our agency, because we’re helping to preserve a very established way of life.
We have an outstanding partnership and working relationship with the VMRC, which helps the watermen and everyone else.”
Forecasts for the industry have tended towards gloom and doom since the 1960s, as the mid-’80s blight only served to accelerate adverse oyster population trends.
The ongoing recovery, approaching its fourth decade, remains robust.
“I’d say the industry has stabilized, at least here on the Shore,” Templeton said. “We’ve established lots of new reefs and people in the industry tend to be a lot more optimistic. That’s big in our area, because the economic health of the industry effects so many people, directly or indirectly. I also think the rules changes will give more people the opportunity to participate if they want to get in.”
Shore residents interested in learning more about NRCS aquaculture programs are invited to contact the USDA field office in Accomac.
Residents on the west side of the bay have numerous options as NRCS service centers in Warsaw, Tappahannock, Gloucester, Chesapeake, Smithfield and Quinton all participate in aquaculture programs. Funding for aquaculture operations is available through both NRCS’ Environmental Quality Innovations Program and Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
“I enjoy dealing with our watermen,” Templeton said, “because most of them – from the big operations to the part-timers — come in with a conservation mindset.
They know the ins and outs of water quality and the dangers of overharvesting. Some of them are still surprised to learn that NRCS can offer them financial assistance, but that’s changing, too.”
Templeton and members of her NRCS staff can be reached at the USDA service center in Accomac (22545 Center Parkway) or by phone at 757-787-0918.

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