Virginia fishery managers are taking the rare step of halting oyster seed harvests in the lower James River as they seek to protect the baby bivalves from overfishing. Each of the small brown ovals is a juvenile oyster, or spat, that has set on the interior of an old oyster shell. (Creative Commons Image courtesy of Mike Congrove / Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

Oyster seeds are wild-grown juvenile oysters, or “spat.” Many oyster farmers working in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries depend on regular shipments of fresh seed to replenish their lease areas.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission expects to temporarily stop the catch before the season’s scheduled closure at the end of the year. Without the action, watermen almost certainly would surpass the fall quota of 40,000 oyster seed bushels taken from the river, officials said.

The commission also agreed to block out-of-state seed transfer permits, effective Oct. 31. Between half and two-thirds of the seeds collected from the James are typically sold to Maryland buyers, according to the commission, which will decide whether purchases can resume in the spring based on fall surveys of the river bottom.

The moves come after the commission cut off last year’s spring harvest — when as many as 80,000 bushels were up for grabs — with about a month left to go. That marked the first time since the cap was enacted in 2011 that the commission called on watermen to hang up their hand tongs.

“Basically, the quota did what it was supposed to do,” said Andrew Button, head of the commission’s oyster conservation and replenishment department. “It’s not really to limit anybody but a way to protect the resource.”

The James, the Piankatank and Great Wicomico are the only rivers where seed harvesting is permitted in Virginia, but the James is the most plentiful by far.

The James’ public oyster seed area consists of a patchwork of reefs west of Deep Creek. To minimize disturbance, watermen are barred from dredging for seeds. They can only use hand tongs, which resemble large chopsticks with rakes attached at the end.

Maryland has no natural seed areas, so hatcheries, such as the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point facility near Cambridge, help to fill the void. But many oyster farmers prefer the natural seeds because they tend to survive better and mature to market size sooner.

“The thing with the natural seed, you might have a set that’s 1-year-old, [but] you might have some 2-year old oysters into it,” said Robert T. Brown, Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “The hatchery seed, it’s all the same year-class.”

With natural seeds like those from the James, “the majority of it is small stuff, but you’ve got some like this into it,” Brown said, holding his finger and thumb an inch or so apart.

The Bay’s aquaculture industry has boomed in recent years, overtaking the Virginia public fishery’s production value. Experts believe that will happen in Maryland as well by some time next spring.

Demand is soaring for the James River’s oyster seeds. So, too, are tensions between Virginia and Maryland watermen over the resource.

“The way it’s being bought out of state by tractor trailer, it’s impossible for an individual waterman to compete with that,” said Tommy Kellum, president of W. E. Kellum Seafood in Weems, VA. “We’ve got to get serious about this. It’s just short of a crisis.”

Virginia watermen get hit twice when the seeds are sold out of state, he added. They not only lose the seeds that could be relocated to their own lease areas, but they also must compete against those seeds once they’re grown into full-size oysters and ready for market.

Kellum told the state’s Shellfish Management Advisory Committee last summer that the surge in Maryland demand began in 2011. That’s when Maryland began giving out $3 million in low-interest loans aimed at encouraging oyster aquaculture.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission reacted quickly, creating the fall and spring quotas. For the first few years, the James River seed harvest topped out at about 80,000 bushels of young oysters — well below the 120,000 annual limit, Button said. But the last two years may have pushed the fishery to its limit and possibly beyond.

To keep tabs on the quota, the commission requires watermen to call in their catch numbers at the end of each day’s harvest. Those numbers show they scooped up 36,000 bushels in the fall of 2017. Follow-up reporting put that figure above 47,000 – which is 7,000 more than the fall season’s cap.

The heavy harvest appears to be taking a toll on specific areas, Button said. At a reef known as Point of Shoals, a recent survey showed that the density of cultch, the shells that oyster larvae latch onto, was the lowest recorded since modern surveying began in 2002.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a regional environmental organization, applauds the commission’s actions in the James.

“Obviously, the VMRC is trying to make sure that, no matter where the seed goes, that the seed areas don’t get depleted,” said Chris Moore, a senior scientist with the foundation’s Virginia office.

Donald Webster, a University of Maryland aquaculture specialist, said that he hopes Virginia officials don’t clamp down further on out-of-state oyster seed buyers.

But “I understand where Virginia is coming from,” he said. “My interest is I would like to see us get back to producing 10 million bushels of oysters between our two states and build the biggest industry we can.”

Bay Journal associate editor and senior writer Tim Wheeler contributed to this report.