Oyster leases highly sought

Published 2:08 pm Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bivalve’s rebound leads to conflicts

By Diana McFarland


News editor

One byproduct of Virginia’s rebounding oyster population is an “unprecedented” increase in oyster ground lease applications in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the James River, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. 

The bivalve population increase includes wild oysters, as well as oysters grown using aquaculture methods, a unique market that didn’t exist 30 years ago, said Ben Stagg, co-chief engineer for the engineering survey department at VMRC. Those changes in the industry are causing a conflict between commercial watermen and waterfront property owners, he said.

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The VMRC used to average about 100 applications a year for oyster ground leases, but last year there were 300, and so far this year there have been about 346 — an “unprecedented” increase, he said, adding that available areas in the James and Pagan rivers are limited, but some are still vacant.

In all, there are 26 commercial leases pending in Isle of Wight County tidal waters, Stagg said. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Commercial oyster leases range from very small to 250 acres per lease.

The oyster aquaculture industry, which usually involves cages set in more shallow water, can cause conflicts with nearby landowners who are dismayed at having watermen working the river bottom in front of their homes and piers, Stagg said.

They don’t want to see cages emerge from the water during low tide and where they swim, boat or jet ski — and homeowners believe that having a commercial operation so close to their home is an invasion of privacy, as well as having an negative impact on their property values, Stagg said. 

Oysters grown in cages are typically a more uniform size, making them favorable to the half-shell market, with restaurants often buying them directly from the grower, Stagg said.

As the number of commercial leases has increased, so has the number of shoreline owners who are seeking riparian leases. Riparian leases are a form of oyster ground lease that allows landowners to stake a claim, up to a half-acre, of river ground within the riparian boundaries of their property, Stagg said.

Currently, there are 28 pending applications for riparian leases in the region, said Stagg.

Landowners obtain riparian leases for a variety of reasons, including having a place to grow oysters, to stop a commercial lease from being obtained in front of the property or to increase the property’s value, Stagg said.

Currently, there are 75 protests to commercial leases from landowners, homeowners associations and other existing leaseholders.

To get a riparian lease, the landowner must own 205 feet of waterfront property and the lease must be in the same name as that on the property deed. Landowners can get a riparian lease as long as there isn’t a commercial lease already located near the mean low water line, Stagg said.

Riparian rights extend to the mean low water line.

If a commercial lease exists there, then the property owner is blocked. Thus the conflict, Stagg said.

Not here

Yet, due to a quirk in the law, those owning land along the James River and its tributaries above the James River Bridge are not eligible to obtain a riparian lease.

There are six riparian leases in Isle of Wight County, with most dating back many years. One is located along the Pagan River and was issued in 1932 and another is off Winall Point in Chuckatuck Creek in Carrollton and was issued in 1979. Two more are located on Jones Creek in front of Captain Chuck-a-muck’s restaurant. However, officials with the VMRC were not able to explain why those leases were issued by press time.

There are no riparian leases in Surry County.

Stagg said it would take an act by the General Assembly to lift the ban on riparian leases in the James River and its tributaries above the James River Bridge.

Del. Rick Morris, R-64th, who represents Isle of Wight County, said he was unaware of the issue and hasn’t had any complaints from constituents.

Stagg said the ban on riparian leases above the James River Bridge could be due to the historic productivity of the river and its tributaries, once providing seed oyster stock for much of the state, except the Eastern Shore.

The James River between Hampton Roads and Jamestown was known as the leading incubator of oysters, according to historian Helen Haverty King in “Historical Notes on Isle of Wight County.”

The river’s circulation, which causes it to retain water in a gyre-like pattern is the reason for the James being a source of seed oysters, said Dr. David Mann with the Virginia Institute Marine Science in Gloucester.

Because of that pattern, oyster larvae are retained in the river rather than being washed out with the outgoing tide, Mann said, adding that its been dubbed a “trap type” estuary, with the Piankatank and Great Wicomico rivers having that same feature.

While waterfront property owners above the James River Bridge can’t obtain a riparian lease, oyster gardening is another option. Oyster gardeners grow the shellfish in cages off docks and piers. Many do it as a way to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay region, but others grow oysters to eat. Those who want to grow oysters to eat must make sure the water is clean enough, and that can be determined through the Virginia Department of Health. Oyster gardening also requires a permit from VMRC.


Interactive map

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has developed an interactive map that shows current oyster bed leases in the region, as well as a listing of all pending applications. The map allows viewers to see an aerial photograph of the region, along with the boundaries of individual oyster ground leases. Click on a lease and learn the applicant’s contact information, when the lease was issued, its size and other information. To view the map, visit www.mrc.virginia.gov and click on links and maps on the left hand side of the home page. Under maps and geographic information system (GIS) data, click on Chesapeake Bay online map. To view applications, click on pending oyster lease applications.



Public grounds versus private grounds


 The public oyster beds, rocks and shoals in the James River and other tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay were first defined and located in 1894 by J.B. Baylor.

 Called the Baylor Survey, these areas are still used today by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to delineate public from private oyster beds.  The public beds are subject to regulation and are reserved for public shellfish harvesting. They cannot be leased or used for other purposes.

The leased river bottom was then developed from areas outside the Baylor delineation.

The VMRC regulates the harvest of oysters, and the Virginia Department of Health regulates what goes to market, said Jon Dickerson, field director for the Virginia Department of Health Division of Shellfish Sanitation in Norfolk.

Watermen are required to sell their harvest to certified dealers who are inspected in a way similar to restaurants, Dickerson said.

The Health Department also monitors all shellfish growing areas once a year and condemned areas can be decreased, enlarged or extended, he said. Watermen can harvest oysters from condemned areas, but the shellfish must undergo a relaying process — that is, moved to a clean area where the animals purge their system of the contaminant for up to 30 days before being sold for consumption, Dickerson said.


A Suffolk waterwoman

By Diana McFarland


News editor

SUFFOLK — Mary Hill, 55, of Suffolk is currently applying for oyster ground leases in Chuckatuck Creek and Batten Bay — both of which lie in waters off Isle of Wight County. Hill said she comes from a family of Hobson watermen who worked the local waters for generations.

Hill considers herself one of the first African-American waterwomen in her area, and hopes to continue her family’s legacy of oyster harvesting. Hill said she is renewing leases once held by her father and others in her family and simply transferring them into her name.

After the Kepone disaster in 1975, Hill said her father and others in the community left the water and went off to work at the shipyard and elsewhere to feed their families. Yet, they held onto their leases, confident the oysters would return, Hill said.

Now that the oyster population is increasing again, Hill is eager to revive a family tradition. She bought a 24-foot wooden Deadrise with a hydraulic pressurized dredge system that she is learning to operate. Hill, who also takes care of her mother after the death of her father, plans to work the river full-time. For the past four years she’s gone out with other watermen to learn the intricacies of the business and is ready to strike out on her own.

 “I never thought in a million years I would be a waterwoman,” Hill said.

Interestingly, Hill is applying for a 2.75 acre lease that butts up to one of the few riparian leases in Isle of Wight County. The lease, located at Winall Point, was taken out by H. Rosenberger in 1979 for a property located on Seagull View Lane, at the end of Sugar Hill Road in Carrollton.

The property has since changed hands and efforts to reach the current owners were unsuccessful.

Hill is aware of the Winall Point lease and knows that commercial watermen are to stay out of the riparian areas.

Oyster grounds are initially surveyed by the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, and watermen, or women in her case, keep track of boundaries with bamboo sticks or lengths of PVC pipe, Hill said.

Older watermen, however, just seem to know where their grounds begin and end, she said.

To them, “it’s like the house next door,” she said of neighboring grounds. Hill is still trying to learn how to keep track of the boundaries of her grounds and today has the help of GPS.

Watermen working private grounds are not subject to the same restrictions as those who work the state’s public grounds. For private lease owners, there are no catch limits, Hill said. So far, Hill hasn’t had to seed her grounds and is careful to throw back smaller oysters to keep her supply steady.

Hill sells her catch to Pagan River Dockside Seafood in Battery Park. As for the oysters caught in Chuckatuck Creek, “they’re so good, they’ll make your eyes roll,” she said. {/mprestriction}