Oyster aquaculture on the Chesapeake Bay

Oyster aquaculture on the Chesapeake Bay ((Daily Press file photo))

A watermen’s cooperative suffered a setback Tuesday when state regulators denied most of its application to grow oysters in a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

The Oyster Company of Virginia, which includes a dozen watermen, received permission to set oyster cages on about 15 acres in Lloyd’s Bay (also known as Floyd’s Bay) in the Poquoson River.

The company requested an additional 115 acres, but that was rejected by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which is concerned the operation could imperil boaters and upset the tranquility of a nearby suburban neighborhood.

“It does present a lot of issues of concern,” said Ben Stagg of the commission’s habitat management division.

Proposed in March, the operation drew the ire of residents along Beach and Pasture roads. They peppered the commission with dozens of letters arguing that cages, which can be as large as a king-size bed, would be a safety risk for kayakers, jet skiers and other recreational users of the river.

The residents also raised concerns about hurricanes or nor’easters pushing the cages into their backyards or houses.

“It’s not a just a Valvoline bottle and river grass,” said Katherine Queen, one of 11, including Del. Gordon Hesel, R-Poquoson, to speak against the company’s plan.

As proposed, the oyster farm would be among the largest in Virginia. Watermen would care for hundreds, if not thousands, of cages set beneath the water’s surface.

William “Tolar” Nolley, the company’s director, said the operation would have a minimal effect on the neighborhood. Commission members weren’t convinced; the 15 acres of bottom they approved is out of sight from the houses of those who complained.

“It’s a tough one,” Commissioner Steven Bowman said, noting the agency’s dual role in promoting aquaculture while balancing the desires of waterfront property owners.

Watermen have planted oyster seeds around the Chesapeake Bay for more than a century. Advances in aquaculture, most notably the success of a genetically altered seed grown in cages, has caused dramatic growth in recent years.

Sales of farmed oysters are up 12-fold from 2005 to 2009, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Many predict that farming oysters, as oppossed to gathering wild oysters, is the only way the fishery will survive.

Given the industry’s recent success, associate commissioner John “Ed” Tankard thinks the commission will continue to encounter complaints that aquaculture operations are encroaching upon waterfront houses.

A bill introduced in Virginia’s General Assembly earlier this year by Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, would have opened vast tracts of waterfront communities to aquaculture operations. It sparked a firestorm in York County and, consequently, died in the House.

Some lawmakers and bureaucrats have proposed zoning sections of the bay and its tributaries for aquaculture. But established aquaculture companies lobbied hard to kill that effort, arguing that zones are unnecessary and could choke the industry’s growth.

A commission led by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to study the best practices for aquaculture operations formed this summer.