The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) 3 unanimously agreed this summer to maintain a moratorium, started on February 23, 2016, on the sale of new oyster licenses for working public oyster grounds. These licenses require an “all gear resource user fee” that allows oystermen to use one or more gear types to harvest oysters.
With oysters mounting a comeback, many more want to get in on the action. In response, the curbs approved by the VMRC are intended to help those who rely on oystering for their livelihood while weeding out some part-timers.
In Virginia, the number of watermen who’ve paid the fee required to harvest oysters from public bottom has grown by 50 percent since 2013. In Maryland, the ranks of those who’ve plunked down $300 for the same right doubled since 2008. The commission noted there would be no new sales of gear licenses until the number of user fee holders drops below 600. There are currently 991 active license holders in the state, said Dr. Jim Wesson, head of VMRC’s oyster replenishment program.
“No one will lose a license, except by their own choice,” noted VMRC Commissioner John Bull after the commission approved the measures intended to lower the number of public fishery oyster licenses.
The VMRC feels that too many watermen are chasing too few oysters. Virginia regulators, worried that harvest pressure has reached unsustainable levels, could harm the ongoing oyster recovery. After increasing steadily for several years, the harvest from public waters dipped last season in Virginia, and it’s slipped the last two years in Maryland.
“The fishery had gotten just way too big,” explained Jim Wesson, chief of oyster conservation and replenishment for the commission.
The Virginia measures have been on the radar for some time; while watermen have agreed to the voluntary attrition approach, this is still a concern according to JC Hudgins of the Virginia Waterman’s Association’s “Being in the waterman’s association, I hate to see anybody lose the right to go on the water. But when you have limited resources, you have to be able to manage that.”