While not as pugnacious as William Cameron, Virginia regulators are following in the footsteps of the state’s 39th governor.
Cameron, who personally led expeditions in the 1880s to stop Marylanders from illegally taking oysters in Virginia waters, is a central figure in the sometimes violent clashes known as the Chesapeake Bay oyster wars.
A new feud may be brewing, only this time it involves legal action instead of gunfire.
Worried that Marylanders will buy up precious James River oyster seeds — juvenile oysters referred to as spat — Virginia regulators have taken the unusual step of capping the amount that watermen are allowed to sell.
The move, unanimously approved last month by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, required an emergency amendment to a state law. It limits watermen to 40,000 bushels until Dec. 31 and 80,000 more in the new year.
Watermen seldom approach those harvest levels, said James Wesson, the commission’s director of oyster restoration. But demand could grow, he said, because Maryland is investing in oyster aquaculture.
Noting the bay’s oysters have been devastated by disease, pollution and overfishing, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley last year created a $2.2 million low-interest loan program to entice people into oyster farming.
There are few oyster hatcheries — places where baby oysters are grown and sold — in Maryland, said Karl Roscher, aquaculture director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. As a result, attention turned to the James, the only area of the bay with plentiful seeds, he said.
“There is a little bit of a demand,” Roscher said.
Located west of Deep Creek, the James seed area is an important spawning ground that contains 600,000 to 900,000 bushels of oysters, Wesson said.
“It has some of the only natural oyster rocks left in the state,” Wesson said.
It is off limits to dredging, the practice of scooping up oysters by dragging a steel-toothed cage on the bay floor. Only watermen who use hand tongs, a labor intensive but less invasive harvesting method, are allowed to work there.
The move to safeguard it — as well as one of Virginia’s most lucrative commercial fisheries — should ensure healthy stocks in the future, Wesson said.
While not on par with the gunfights that occurred well into the 20th century, the action is somewhat reminiscent of the oyster wars.
The sometimes violent disputes began in the mid-1800s when the bay’s oyster trade flourished. Oyster pirates, lawmen and legal watermen engaged in gunfights, thievery and other dubious deeds.
Cameron’s expeditions resulted in dozens of arrests and the forfeiture of several boats. The war subsided as the oyster industry began a steady decline in the 1950s.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun