As Chris Ludford sees it, the oysters he’s growing in Virginia Beach’s Lynnhaven River are helping to restore the Chesapeake Bay tributary, once fabled for having some of the tastiest bivalves anywhere.Those oyster cages placed in shallow water in the Lynnhaven River could be seen at low tide. Sign warns boaters of their presence when submerged at other times. (Dave Harp)

“Nobody thought we’d be eating Lynnhaven oysters again,” said Ludford, a part-time oyster farmer and full-time firefighter whose Pleasure House brand of bivalves are featured on the half-shell at several local restaurants.

The Lynnhaven, which extends like an osprey’s claw from the mouth of the Chesapeake into Virginia’s largest municipality, was closed to shellfishing off and on for decades because of pollution. Now, roughly half of the river system has been reopened.

But to John Korte, who lives on a canal off the Lynnhaven, the expansion of oyster farming there is curtailing some people’s ability to enjoy that cleaner river. He contends the submerged cages used for raising oysters pose hazards to unwitting boaters, jet skiers, swimmers and waders in one of the state’s busiest recreational waterways. And aquaculture gear spoils the view from waterfront homes.

“We share the water,” Korte said, as he guided his powerboat slowly past houses hugging the shoreline, with offshore signs warning boaters of aquaculture gear in the shallows. “You use it today, I use it tomorrow. But once you put stuff down, I can’t do that anymore.”

Conflict over oyster farming has been going on several years now in the Lynnhaven, but it’s spreading throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Unlike the “oyster wars” of the late 1800s between feuding watermen and fishery police, there’s been no gunplay. The combatants this time wield petitions and lawsuits. But feelings are running high as the growing industry encounters increasing resistance from waterfront homeowners and some watermen who object to what they see as a creeping privatization
of a public resource.

Oyster farmer Chris Ludford lifts a mesh bag of shells planted by students on a lease he acquired in the Lynnhaven. The shells provide a home for baby oysters to grow, helping to clean up the water and protect a nearby patch of marsh from erosion. (Dave Harp)In fast-growing St. Mary’s County, MD — a hotbed of oyster farming — local officials responded in December to waterfront property owners’ complaints by imposing a six-month moratorium on using commercial docks to work any new state leases for raising oysters in cages on the bottom or in floats at the surface.

Virginia officials tried a seven-month moratorium on leasing in the Lynnhaven a few years ago while mulling how to ease tensions there. Now, the conflicts have spread. There’s a statewide backlog of 400 lease applications pending, with protests lodged against approximately 100. Most of the cases are 2– to 3 years old, though some have been held up longer.

User workgroups formed

“Anywhere there’s intense residential development, whether it’s old or new, is now causing problems,” said Ben Stagg, who oversees shellfish aquaculture leasing and surveying for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

In Maryland, with a smaller industry, the backlog isn’t as great, with 125 pending applications and just 17 under official protest. But others have been held up for months as Department of Natural Resources staff attempt to iron out differences.

Officials in both states have responded to the escalating friction by forming workgroups, which met through the fall to hash out “user conflicts.” Virginia’s 17-member panel recommended legislative and regulatory changes intended to cure some of the chronic problems tying up leasing there.

Matthew Strickler, Virginia’s natural resources secretary, said Gov. Ralph Northam supports the state’s booming aquaculture industry but also “the ability of people to use the water recreationally. We’re trying to balance those and keep the industry growing.”

The outcome of Maryland’s discussions is less clear. That 15-member workgroup offered a multitude of suggestions for changes in leasing. DNR Assistant Secretary Bill Anderson said that officials would review them all. Without specifying, he said officials would likely tweak some policies and regulations, but didn’t see the need for legislation.

That may disappoint St. Mary’s County officials, who imposed their moratorium with hopes of forcing the DNR to give local officials and waterfront homeowners some control over leasing decisions.

Oyster farmers say they feel squeezed between watermen complaining they’re losing clamming and crabbing sites and waterfront homeowners not wanting to see or navigate around cages and floats.

“It’s really hard to site an aquaculture lease anymore,” said Jon Farrington, a St. Mary’s oyster farmer. “Trying to avoid all those conflicts, plus find a piece of suitable bottom, is really tough.”John Korte, who grew up living along the Lynnhaven River, says the proliferation of oyster leases has impaired recreation in one of the state’s most heavily used waterways. “We share the water,” he says, but cages in the water limit where people can boat, ski and swim. (Dave Harp)

In a sense, the Bay’s aquaculture industry is a victim of its own success. Oyster farming is enjoying a renaissance, after nearly being wiped out by disease. Its comeback was made possible by the development of “triploid” oysters, a fast-growing variant of native Eastern oysters that can reach market size before disease can kill them.

Virginia has had a long history of leasing its bottom for oyster production, and more bivalves are harvested from “private grounds” than are gathered in the wild by watermen. The advent of cage and float aquaculture, which can raise shellfish more intensively, has helped make Virginia the top oyster-producing state on the East Coast. Statewide, there are more than 5,700 leases to raise clams or oysters on nearly 132,000 acres, according to VMRC data.

In Maryland, private oyster cultivation traditionally was more limited and was even barred in some counties. But the state revamped its laws in 2010 to allow leasing statewide and offered financial assistance for startups.

Though hampered at first by rigid regulation, Maryland oyster farming is now on the rise, with more than 400 leases covering 6,800 acres. Aquaculture yielded 74,000 bushels last year, compared with a wild harvest of 180,000 bushels.

The clashes flaring in Maryland and Virginia are happening in virtually every coastal state, said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

“This is the new normal,” he said. “Permitting was going along swimmingly everywhere, and now it’s not. There are lawsuits and people are screaming.”

The only study he’s seen of aquaculture’s impact on property values, he said, was in Rhode Island a few years ago. Its conclusion: While owners of large waterfront properties do care what happens off their shore, it found “no statistical evidence to prove that there is a negative effect of construction of oyster farms on housing sales prices.”

“It wasn’t that long ago we had fish weirs up and down the Bay. People got used to it,” Rheault said. “Now people want to get back into oystering, and about the only way to do it sustainably is through aquaculture. Raising oysters in cages or floats is “tremendously efficient,” he said, “but people have to let us do it.”

Requests for applications soaring

Both states have struggled to cope with the increased interest in aquaculture — and with the pushback.Development hugs the Lynnhaven River shoreline in Virginia Beach. Oyster farming thrives there as long-running cleanup efforts have succeeded in reopening half the Bay tributary to shellfish harvesting. (Dave Harp)

In Virginia, the number of applications filed annually surged from 150 in 2012 to 338 in 2014. The pace has slowed since, with nearly 160 last year, but Stagg said he’s only had enough staff to survey about 125 proposed leases a year.

“Five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, we didn’t have more than a handful get protested per year,” Stagg said.

The VMRC staff try to resolve protests, but contested cases often go to the marine resources commission, a nine-member body appointed by the governor.

The commission generally approves contested leases, though it has denied some. But in hearing only two or three cases per month, the commission isn’t making much headway in reducing the backlog. Applicants denied a lease can appeal to court, and increasingly, frustrated lease opponents are also filing lawsuits.

Some of the fiercest disputes in both states have erupted over proposals to raise oysters at the water’s surface. Though still relatively rare, floating aquaculture operations are drawing more industry interest.

In September, the VMRC held a three-hour hearing on whether to permit 700 floating oyster cages in 5.5 acres of water in Milford Haven, a waterway that separates Gwynn’s Island from the mainland at the mouth of the Piankatank River.

“None of us are against aquaculture — it’s just the placement,” said David Judson, who lives with his wife Rosalie and three dogs in a waterfront home overlooking the proposed operation.

Judson and other waterfront residents worry that the cages, along with 1,400 buoys and cables attached to the bottom, will hurt Bay grasses and entangle boaters, kayakers and even a pod of dolphins that visits in the summer.

Kevin Wade, the longtime seafood dealer who applied for the permit, said he was too busy to talk when reached by phone. He didn’t return a follow-up call and email.

At the hearing, Wade said he and two partner wants to try floating cage aquaculture to raise more lucrative half-shell oysters. He said they chose  Milford Haven because he has a seafood processing facility there.

The commission voted 4 to 2, with two abstentions, to approve the permit. But opponents have gone to court in a bid to block it — arguing, among other things, that Wade’s Maryland partner violates Virginia law.

Virginia’s Lynnhaven poses particularly thorny challenges. Nearly half of its 5,100 acres of water have been leased, though not all leases are workable because of water quality. Some claims have been held for decades by those hoping to work them again — or to cash in by selling them if the water is deemed safe for shellfish harvesting again.

State and local officials, along with environmental and community groups, have been working for decades to clean up the Lynnhaven. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has $34 million to spend on ecological restoration there, and the river has been selected as one of 10 Bay tributaries targeted for large-scale oyster restoration.

Resistance to leases building

Meanwhile, bids for new leases are facing stiff resistance. Of 16 leases pending, 11 are under protest. Ludford has managed to acquire rights to 75 acres, but a tract he applied for in 2014 that triggered an uproar is still pending.

Even veteran Lynnhaven oyster farmers like John Meekins, who’s been at it three decades, said he finds it hard to hang onto his leases. He said he has 500 acres under lease, but five applications have been protested including one applied for in 2011.

“It’s the neighborhoods. They want to control their view, not just their yard,” Meekins said, as he and his helpers tended cages in a cove bordered by homes.

“Hobbyist” oyster gardener Chris Schellhammer holds the shell of a large bivalve from the Lynnhaven River, where he has two leases off his waterfront home. “When people buy on the water, there needs to be more disclosure” about aquaculture, he says. (Dave Harp)

The river is prone to silting in, which poses another challenge. Virginia Beach dredges channels for homeowners’ boats. But when the city needs to dredge through a leased area, it has had trouble getting the holder to move oysters or agree on compensation for the disruption.

“It needs to be dredged for the good of the locality,” said Bob Livengood, a marine business owner. “I don’t think the people understand that this is a lease — you don’t own this property. It belongs to all of us.”

Ludford pointed out that the region’s development, not oyster farming, is driving navigation problems. The Lynnhaven and other major rivers in the area are “on average 15 feet shallower than they were 400 years ago, because of the sediment [runoff] and the fill-in,” he said.

Cruising through Broad Bay, a Lynnhaven tributary, John Korte highlighted homeowners’ concerns about aquaculture. Coming to a leased shoal area with cages visible at low tide, he said, “This is a nice little sandbar. Before that was there, everybody on kayaks and the neighbors would get out and basically use it as a park.”

In Maryland, leases can be no closer than 50 feet to the shore, unless the landowner agrees. In Virginia, there is no setback requirement, but homeowners with at least 205 feet of waterfront have the right to a half-acre “riparian lease” that can extend up to 210 feet from shore.

Chris Schellhammer, a Lynnhaven waterfront homeowner and self-described “hobbyist” oyster gardener, said riparian leases give landowners first refusal on raising oysters in near-shore waters. He’s raising some just offshore for water quality and habitat value and has another lease farther out, where he’s cultivating bivalves for his own consumption.

Schellhammer, a workgroup member, said he believes homeowners need to be better educated about leasing and aquaculture. “When people buy on the water, there needs to be more disclosure,” he said. “It’s an emotional thing, and I get that. But if people knew about this situation, then the user conflict would go down.”

Virginia, like Maryland, requires leases to be worked, but the rule is not enforced, and many leases sit dormant. That adds to the competition and conflict in the Lynnhaven and elsewhere.

Virginia’s workgroup recommended legislation to help Virginia Beach dredge boating channels across leased areas. It also called for increasing the application and transfer fees, to give the VMRC more resources to handle applications and possibly deter speculative leasing from tying up productive bottom.

Strickler, the natural resources secretary, said the group also recommended procedural changes to address complaints about float and cage aquaculture. The changes are intended to make such applications “more open and intuitive” and “more transparent,” he said.

Aquaculture produced nearly 40 million oysters statewide last year worth nearly $16 million at the dock, and it provided around 200 jobs, according to Virginia Sea Grant.

Karen Forget, executive director of Lynnhaven River Now, a watershed advocacy group, and another workgroup member, said “There’s no simple answer to these issues.” But getting more water-filtering oysters in the Lynnhaven will be good for its ecological health, and for the state’s seafood industry.

If leases sitting dormant are put to active use and the river becomes clean enough to open more areas to shellfish harvests, Forget suggested that could ease some of the pressure to place cages so close to shore — and reduce conflicts with boaters and homeowners.

“I firmly believe there are ways to work these things out. Everyone has to compromise a little bit,” she said, but “we can have a healthy river, happy watermen, happy boaters and homeowners. It can work for everybody.”

(As originally posted, this story misstated the amount of shoreline a Virginia waterfront landowner must have to obtain a riparian lease.  The Bay Journal regrets the error.)