Bills shift state oversight of oystering to fisheries

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
5 February 2007, at 12:00am

VIRGINIA - Two identical General Assembly bills, which appear to be on a path to adoption, would direct the state's marine regulatory agency to impose new guidelines for aquaculture operations.

But it is uncertain how any new legislation could affect the Virginia Marine Resource Commission's resolution of disagreements over proper placement and management of shellfish farming operations.

Since last summer, the state agency has been caught between competing interests along Middle Peninsula shorelines, where the burgeoning shellfish farming industry has sparked considerable controversy.

Conflicts over raising oysters in underwater cages - where they are protected from cow-nosed rays - ballooned last summer along Gloucester's coast. Large swaths of river bottom were leased, or petitioned for lease, from the state for oyster farming operations.

Waterfront homeowners, recreational boaters and some commercial watermen quickly grew at odds with the larger scale deployment of underwater steel cages in busy waterways and fronting high-dollar real estate.

House Bill 1855 and Senate Bill 1333 have so far received unanimous support in their respective legislative bodies and will return to committee to be re-examined this week before a final vote.

The legislation is designed to amend current Virginia Code concerning oyster-planting grounds, to specifically address the placement of structures used for shellfish farming. The bills' intent is to ensure underwater cages don't impede navigation or remain in the water after the operation goes idle or lease conditions are violated.

Ellen Porter, a state Division of Legislative Services agriculture and natural resources attorney, is familiar with the bills' progress and said she expected them to merge into one document and pass without contention.

"This bill seems pretty popular - everyone seems to be behind it," Porter said. "It looks like there is consensus on this."

Source: Daily Press