— Oyster trader Joe Melzer Jr. gets regular visits from the state Department of Health. His business, Pagan River Dockside Seafood Inc., is rarely tagged for a violation.
Not so on a recent December morning. An inspector issued a citation after finding a brown grocery bag inexplicably left inside an oyster cooler.
Melzer was perplexed. He hadn't seen the bag while locking up the afternoon before, and nothing seemed amiss in the morning.
The mystery unraveled, literally, as he unfurled the bag and found dozens of ham biscuits. Turns out a friend with a key had left the foodstuff overnight.
"Still fresh," Melzer said while taking a bite in his office, a corner room on the banks of the Pagan River that has more stuffed deer heads than computers.
Opened some 80 years ago in Battery Park, Pagan River Dockside Seafood is in many ways lost in time.
It doesn't have a Web page. Work is dictated by seasons and sunlight. And yes, anonymous neighbors leave homemade ham biscuits for no reason other than to be neighborly.
The Pagan River, formed about three miles north of Smithfield, runs narrow until it is joined by Cypress Creek. The river then opens to a large expanse of wetlands and marsh before bottle-necking into the James River.
Unlike many of the tributaries along the James, it is largely untouched by development — 88 percent of its watershed is a mix of forest, pasture, grasslands and wetlands, according to a 2001 report by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Pagan, however, played an integral role in the growth of Smithfield, a town of approximately 7,000 people best known for producing Virginia hams.
First settled in 1634, Smithfield became an important Hampton Roads trading port. Peanut warehouses lined the river banks until a 1921 fire prompted the industry to shift to Suffolk.
Founded 15 years later, Smithfield Foods soon took its place as the town's economic engine. Following years of expansion, it is now the world's largest pork producer and processor. Its headquarters occupy a sizable portion of the town's waterfront.
Yet unlike other inland waterways, such as the Hampton River, the Pagan remains largely pastoral. In 2000 about 18,000 people lived in its watershed, according to the USGS. The Hampton River, less than half the Pagan's length, had a population of nearly 75,000 at the same time.
The Pagan's rural character is evident in Battery Park, a community without a gas station. Pagan River Dockside Seafood sits at the end of a quiet road named Newport Street.
A collapsed two-story house slumps on top of a small front-end loader. Hundreds of battered crab pots rust in a dirt yard across the street. And warehouse windows remain blown out, victim of recent storms.
Despite its image of decay, Pagan River Dockside Seafood remains an active business. It is on a downswing, however.
Last season it routinely sold 2,000 boxes — roughly 666 bushels — of oysters a week. The number has dipped to 500 boxes recently. Melzer blames the slide on the economy.
Nearly all the oysters he sells are half shells consumed at restaurants in Virginia and North Carolina. The problem, Melzer said, is that not enough people have enough money to dine out. As a result, oysters sell for less, if at all.
"The oysters are here, but the economy isn't," he said.
The deterioration of the Chesapeake Bay oyster is well-documented. Loss of habitat, pollution and disease have ravaged the bivalve that once flourished in the bay and its tributaries.
Melzer, a former waterman from Deep Creek in Newport News, knows this. He also knows that the Pagan River, despite its remoteness, is not immune to these problems.
The state has on multiple occasions temporarily banned harvesting oysters and other shellfish from the Pagan. The reason: high amounts of animal waste in the water.
In 1997, federal regulators hit Smithfield Foods with a then-record $12.6 million fine for dumping nearly 3 million gallons of wastewater into the river each day for decades. Smithfield Foods has since cleaned up its act, winning an award for environmental stewardship in 2005.
Still, animal waste remains a problem along with toxic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and dissolved oxygen, according to a 2008 state Department of Environmental Quality report.
Those problems could be exacerbated as more people live and work near the Pagan, said Chris Moore, a science advocate in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Norfolk office.
The population of Isle of Wight County, where the Pagan is, jumped 19 percent from 2000 to 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Single-family suburban homes cover a 10-mile stretch of the river's southern shore that runs from Smithfield to Rescue. New apartment complexes built inland occupy former farmland that once soaked up nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that pollute the Pagan, Moore said.
All this concerns Melzer, yet it is largely out of his control.
So he focuses on replacing a walk-in cooler that a bruising three-day nor'easter wiped out in November. He examines part of the pier that nearly collapsed under the storm's tide.
He frets that he'll have to lay off the few workers he employs if the economy doesn't pick up. He thinks about the hunting season and how many bucks he and his son, Joe Melzer III, will harvest.
He takes another bite of the ham biscuit and leans back in his leather chair. A soft breeze sweeps through the office's open door. The pungent aroma of raw oysters fills the room.
Melzer stands up and looks out the door at the river. A sea gull squawks as it flies by.
"The water business is real nice," he said. "I like working on the water."
Our riversSunday: The Army's lone boat fleet is in the James River Monday: Harvesting soybeans along the Nansemond River Tuesday: Searching for lost crab pots on the York River Wednesday: Million-dollar yachts on the Hampton River Today: Yes, oysters are still for sale on the Pagan RiverCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun