Virginia’s longtime oyster wrangler has retired, but he’s not done wrestling with the Chesapeake Bay’s beleaguered bivalves.

Jim Wesson, oyster repletion chief for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, returned to private life recently after 25 years with the agency. Before he left, the VMRC’s nine-member board presented him with a plaque in appreciation for his long service and his part in the dramatic rebound of the state’s oyster industry, from near-oblivion two decades ago to the most productive on the East Coast.

“Dr. Wesson’s long career has thoroughly demonstrated his passionate commitment to restoring our oyster stocks to their rightful place in the ecosystem,” John M.R. Bull, Virginia’s marine resources commissioner, said in a statement on the day Wesson left. “Jim’s dedication, work ethic, and vision leaves big shoes to be filled as we continue this important work. He has achieved remarkable successes, particularly over the past decade, when Virginia’s oyster harvests have skyrocketed from 30,000 bushels to 619,000 bushels last year. This didn’t happen by chance. Jim will be missed.”

Wesson, in an interview, sounded a bit embarrassed by the attention.

“I try to avoid all that stuff if I can,” he said.  But he acknowledged that the state’s oyster industry has seen a big turnaround during his tenure. When he joined the commission staff, the Bay was in the grip of a pair of parasitic oyster diseases, MSX and Dermo, that decimated a bivalve population already whittled down by overharvesting and habitat loss. Oyster production in Virginia bottomed out in 1996 with less than 18,000 bushels from both public and private grounds.

Wesson came to the VMRC with unusual credentials for a fisheries manager. He’d earned a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on top of a master’s degree from Virginia Tech. But he’d also grown up in Gloucester and worked on the water as a crabber, even serving a stint as president of the Working Waterman’s Association. It was a slump in crabbing around 1990 that drove him off the water into state service, he said.

“I was putting more and more gear out and catching less,” he recalled.

Assigned to shepherd the state’s oyster grounds, Wesson found himself at odds at times with his former colleagues as he pushed for limits on oystering to conserve what was left. And his employer, the VMRC, didn’t always take his advice. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation named him its “conservationist of the year” in 1996 for his efforts.

In the 1990s, Wesson also coordinated an effort to establish oyster sanctuaries in Virginia waters. He built tall, “three-dimensional” reefs that he said were similar to the ones European colonists saw breaking the water’s surface when they first settled the region four centuries ago. The theory was that oysters kept off the bottom would be better able to survive the diseases and smothering sediment.

Wesson eventually came to the conclusion that man-made reefs in sanctuaries weren’t going to be the salvation of the Bay’s oysters. That view is disputed by some scientists and federal environmental officials, who say there’s evidence in the past decade or so that reefs, if properly built and placed, will sustain themselves if left alone and help re-seed the Chesapeake.

“I’ve angered the feds as much as I’ve angered the watermen,” Wesson said. He still favors maintaining sanctuaries, he added -- as a refuge for disease-resistant oysters, and as a baseline for comparing how the harvested reefs are doing.

That dispute aside, Wesson has worked with other scientists, notably Roger Mann at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to conduct a painstaking assessment, reef by reef, of the state’s oyster stocks. That’s become the foundation for the state’s management of its oysters.

Along the way, he hit upon a new approach to regulating fishing pressure on the public grounds. He established a “rotational harvest” regimen, where watermen could only work areas for a limited time every two or three years. In the off-years, the reefs would be restocked with shells if need be and new generations of oysters would be allowed to settle and grow to marketable size.

About the same time, the state’s aquaculture industry experienced its own resurgence, in part through new techniques tried by private oyster companies. Notable was the development of a chemically neutered “triploid” oyster, which instead of spawning every year put all of its energy into growth and was able to reach harvestable size before succumbing to disease. 

In 2015, Virgina’s watermen and oyster farmers together produced 658,000 bushels of bivalves, the most since 1987. The combined yield slipped some last year, particularly the wild harves. Wesson has warned that the resurgent fishery is taking a toll – the number of oyster licenses has jumped in recent years. The increasing use of mechanical dredges to scrape up bivalves also is a factor. Wesson says the evidence is clear that “working” oyster reefs by dredging them wears them down faster, rather than maintains them, as many watermen insist. On this point, plenty of other scientists agree with him.

Watermen generally like the rotational harvest program, and it’s drawn interest in Maryland. But some Virginia oyster harvesters have complained about the VMRC’s reliance on fossil shells for replenishing public reefs. They want the state to buy fresh shell from shucking houses. Wesson said the price is prohibitive, making fossil shell the better investment. But even that supply may go away, and possibly sooner than later. A custom-fitted hydraulic dredge used to mine the fossil shell beds in the James River is for sale; if it’s sold and moved out of the Bay, Wesson has warned, there’ll be no way to recover fossil shell anymore. That could mean a steep decline in public oyster stocks, he warned.

Now 65 years old, Wesson said it was time to move on, as he wants to spend more time hunting and traveling. But he plans to continue living in Gloucester, close to VIMS, and he has several research projects in mind, the first being a collaboration with Mann on a Baywide “shell budget,” assessing trends in the all-important material for continuing oyster reproduction and survival.

“I’m not walking away,” he said.