Estimated to be worth $30 million to $50 million a year, the aquaculture industry has blossomed in recent years, in part because of so few government rules and oversight.
But with conflicts mounting between shellfish farms and boaters, waterfront property owners and anglers, the state was eager to lay some ground rules. So officials and farmers have spent months crafting regulations that would protect property rights and the environment.
After hours of more debate Tuesday, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted for a comprehensive program that includes permits, employee licensing, fees and safety restrictions.
The new rules will go into effect Dec. 1.
Among the specifics, new farms cannot be closer than 100 feet from existing piers and shoreline. Poles and warning signs must be installed to mark farm borders, and land owners within 500 feet of a proposed seafood operation must be informed of the project and can protest it.
Hard-plastic cages and bags, in which shellfish are grown in shallow waters, cannot be set atop environmentally important underwater grass beds.
And no more than 250 of these structures can occupy any acre of leased creek or river bottom. There are no height restrictions. See Thing Your Way.
"This was a work in progress, with a lot of give and take," said Steve Bowman, head of the state marine commission, which regulates coastal ecosystems and seafood harvests. "Is it perfect? Well, nothing is perfect."