Commuters from Gloucester County who were headed south on the Coleman Bridge this week could look up the York River and see dozens of deadrise workboats clustered offshore. Watermen were out in force after opening day Jan. 1 of oyster rock season.
By Wednesday the fleet had thinned as pickings were slim. Dickie Owens of Mathews was on hand at York River Yacht Haven receiving watermen as they came in. He trucks the harvest daily to J&W Seafood in Deltaville. On only the fourth day, he was getting discouraged.
“It was good the first day,” Owens said. He went to his truck to consult a small notebook he keeps. “We got 81 bushels then, but only 53 yesterday on the second day. I’ve got three more boats coming in this afternoon and I doubt I’ll get to 50 bushels all day.”
60 deadrise boats
The marina was geared up to host 60 fishing boats for the season, which runs the month of January before other rivers get their designated rotation. Gwen Zimmerman at the marina ship’s store echoed Dickie Owens. “There are hardly any oysters,” she said. “Twelve boats have already left, and more are leaving. I feel bad for the watermen.”
Owens blamed a familiar target, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “They just opened up a small piece of the fishing grounds,” he said. You can’t have 125 boats crammed into such a small space. This should be addressed as a safety issue, with all those boats running into each other.” He added that the VMRC “can’t see the danger, or don’t want to.”
Owens broke off the conversation to catch the Marion Cross and tie it up at the dock. Eight bushels were quickly handed to shore.
Decades of over-harvesting led VMRC to stake out certain public grounds for catching oysters. The York River “rotation” covers two triangles above the Naval Weapons Station, hugging the northern coast near Cedar Bush Creek. Other “public grounds” are mapped out for the Mobjack Bay, Little Wicomico River, Milford Haven, Gwynn’s Island and so on. Each has its own oyster rock season with numerous regulations that stipulate size and numbers.
Marine Police out checking
Three officers from the Virginia Marine Police were stationed at York River Yacht Haven, where they checked watermen for the proper permits and their catch for compliance.
Capt. Jamie Green confirmed what the others said. “From what we can tell, the catch has not been as good in the York River as it was the two or three previous seasons.” He referred to published news accounts of diminished “spat sets” in which oyster larvae known as spats attach to oyster reefs or other hard bottom. No one knows why for sure why they’re down.
Green added, “We usually see watermen reach their limit by the third week of January, but at this rate we’ll be lucky to get into the second week. They’re back by 9 or 10 in the morning and done for the day, and this is only the fourth day of the season.”
The watermen come from miles around, extending to the Northern Neck and Mathews County. By virtue of the Virginia DMV, they’re allowed to use special plates that bypass the normal fees. Capt. Green told me they can only use such trucks from home to the workplace, with no deviation.
On another dock, two young watermen seemed more chipper as they carried a 90-lb. bushel off their boat. “These are clams, a byproduct of the oyster harvest,” one of them said. “We’ll probably eat these instead of selling them.”