Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The New Civil War: Army vs. Virginia Over Oysters

Oyster restoration feud continues:
...The corps [Army Corps of Engineers], with the backing of VIMS professor Rom Lipcius, wants to continue building a large sanctuary in the Great Wicomico River. At roughly 85 acres, it is among the largest man-made oyster reefs in the world. It differs from other reefs because the oysters are stacked 10 to 18 inches off the river bottom, said Lipcius, who routinely appears before state officials to discuss another bay delicacy, the blue crab.

Lipcius says the height and size of the reef allows oysters to overcome diseases, predators, and pollution - which, combined with overharvesting, has decimated the population during the past 50 years.

The commission[Virginia Marine Resources Commission], which works with VIMS professor Roger Mann, says the reef isn't as successful as the corps and Lipcius contend. Oysters there, according to VMRC oyster restoration specialist Jim Wesson, are dying due to the diseases MSX and Dermo. Restoration efforts would be better served, Wesson has said, by planting shells and seed on grounds that are open to watermen. That way the oysters have a chance to be harvested before they die, he said...
The Army has the money, in this case $2 million in federal funds for oyster restoration.  However, to spend the money, and get their reef, the Corps needs 15% matching funds, which in this case are expected to be paid for by Virgina for providing oyster shell for the reef.  And the state wants it their way, with watermen getting to pick over the oysters the federal dollars paid to grow.

Why the difference?  Science?  I doubt it.  The VMRC as a state agency is heavily influenced by the local politics, and watermen can still deliver a few crucial votes.  VMRC, in fact, has a couple of designated seats for representatives of commercial fishing or fish processing (it also has a couple of "recreational representatives, but as they don't have much of a dog in this fight, their votes may be up for negotiation).  The  Army Corps, on the other hand is imperious in it's indifference to the interest groups in various states.

I prefer the Army position.  It's just insane that while oysters are struggling at 1% of their historical abundance in the bay, we continue to allow the taking over virtually every oyster large enough to lay eggs (disturbingly, oysters change from male to female as they mature).

But what about the disease argument?  Won't they just die if you leave them unharvested?  Maybe, but maybe not, and maybe not all.  One thing we know is that a harvested oyster is dead for sure, and cannot contribute to the restoration.

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