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Will oysters make comeback?
PRFC, watermen hopeful in latest effort to restore oysters in the Potomac

 A boat hauls seed oysters to be planted on bars in the Potomac as part of the oyster management reserve.
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Date published: 2/3/2013

By RUSTY DENNEN

After years of little or no oyster harvest on the once-bountiful Potomac River, watermen are catching more of the tasty shellfish these days.

The few-thousand bushels they've caught since October is miniscule compared to the glory days of the 1960s, but it's a sign that efforts to restore oysters in the "nation's river" are beginning to pay off.

"Last year at this time, we had about 250 bushels [caught], primarily around St. George's Island in the lower river," said Kirby Carpenter, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission in Colonial Beach. This year, there's been a tenfold increase to around 2,500 bushels.

That's significant, he says, because it shows that--after years of dismal harvests--native oysters in that part of the river are reproducing and growing to market size. Since the 1980s, oysters in much of the river have been wiped out by a convergence of disease, over-harvesting and freshwater from floods.

"It shows that there's some potential there to be redeveloped," said Carpenter, who heads up the bi-state commission that regulates fishing in the river. The commission has initiated a three-pronged program it hopes will reverse the oysters' decline.

The main components: a sustainable put-and-take fishery known as the Oyster Management Reserve Program; rotational harvests on other oyster grounds; and maintaining off-limits areas to protect brood stock.

The oyster reserve is the most-recent initiative, and the quickest way for watermen to increase their catch dramatically over the next few years--if it works as planned and nature cooperates.

The first batch of 5,000 bushels of sterile, native Eastern oysters were stocked last June in one reserve area off the Virginia shore.

"They're showing very good growth and survival" Carpenter said.

Another planting is planned for this spring, either on that site, or another designated spot off the Maryland shore.

BLUE-RIBBON PANEL

Because sterile oysters don't use energy to reproduce, they grow all year long and can be harvested in about two years.

It takes fertile Eastern oysters about four years to grow to market size. Because of that slower growth rate, they are susceptible to diseases that can kill them before they're harvested.


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The last major effort to address the oyster decline in the Potomac River was in the mid-1990s, when the industry supported the introduction of fast-growing Asian oysters to supplement the native stock.

Much of the money of management agencies, such as the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, went into research toward that end.

Growers along the river experimented with a sterile Asian variety. But there were nagging concerns from conservationists and biologists that even "sterile" oysters could eventually become fertile in the wild.

Those and other issues prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was heading up an analysis of the problem, to announce in April 2009 that the plan was too risky to the river's ecology.

The Army, along with the PRFC and other natural resource agencies, agreed that native Eastern oyster restoration should be the preferred alternative and sole focus of funding and science efforts.

Decades ago, when oysters were reproducing regularly in the Potomac, the river was regarded as the oyster sweet spot. Potomac oysters were considered among the best in the industry.

In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of oyster boats worked within sight of Colonial Beach each fall and winter, catching hundreds of thousands of bushels.

Legend has it that, in the early 1900s, a waterman could walk across the river on the gunwales of oyster boats.

For more on the Potomac River efforts, prfc.state.va.us