The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is trying something new to expand the ecologically beneficial farming of oysters and clams on state-owned water bottoms.
In January, the Commission is expected to approve the creation of 15 new Aquaculture Opportunity Zones.
These zones will set aside more than 1,000 acres of prime state-owned water bottoms for the farming of shellfish in cages. The zones appear to be perfect for shellfish farming, also known as aquaculture.
The zones, which were identified through extensive, on-site Commission inspections, are located on hard bottom, in clean shallow waters that are without underwater grasses that must be protected to preserve their value as nurseries for fish and crabs. These zones also are sufficiently sheltered, within reasonable distance of off-loading sites and are not within the riparian areas of waterfront property owners.
The zones are not on privately leased oyster grounds or on public oyster grounds known as Baylor Grounds.
The zones total 1,004.3 acres. They include areas in the Rappahannock River, in the tributaries of Mobjack Bay, and around Tangier Island. Roughly half of the total zone acreage is near Tangier Island.
“These are excellent locations for the farming of oysters and clams in on-bottom cages,” said Doug Domenech, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources. “Shellfish have an amazing ability to purge the water, which will help clean the Bay, and the economic benefits from an expanded aquaculture industry are potentially quite substantial. This is a win-win.”
In the new aquaculture opportunity zones, the Commission will waive the normal costs to lease water bottoms for private oyster growing, including surveying, advertising, deed recording and the payment of annual rent. These costs typically range from $600 to $1,100.
A streamlined permitting process will eliminate time-consuming surveying and advertising requirements. A simple application will be required, spelling out how many shellfish cages are to be placed, and where and how they would be placed.
“We want people to take advantage of this exciting opportunity, especially commercial oystermen,” VMRC Fisheries Chief Jack Travelstead. “This is an incredible deal. Shellfish aquaculture is more dependable than going out and catching oysters, and reduces pressure on our wild stocks that have been suffering under the pressure of two oyster diseases. Also, we will continue to train commercial watermen in aquaculture as much as our budget allows.”
The new aquaculture zones will be divided up into a maximum of 5-acre blocks and assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis to any Virginian. A one-time application fee of $100 will be levied. Only Virginia residents may apply. Harvest reporting is mandatory. Other permits may be required.
Some annual fees apply for use of this valuable state-owned property in a for-profit venture, just as they do for privately leased water bottoms for shellfish farming. Only on-bottom cages will be permitted in the new aquaculture zones, marked by one buoy each. The cages cannot be placed near navigation channels or private piers without the consent of the property owners.
The Aquaculture Opportunity Zones are authorized under a bipartisan bill sponsored by Del. Albert Pollard that passed the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year and was signed into law by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
The Commission has scheduled a public hearing and a vote on the creation of the new zones at its Jan. 25, 2011 meeting.
A single adult oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water a day. Shellfish aquaculture is a booming, multi-million dollar industry in Virginia and oyster gardening under private piers and along the shoreline of privately owned waterfront property is becoming increasingly popular among environmentally concerned citizens.