By the Chesapeake Bay's historic standards, the mouth of the Rappahannock River is something close to an oyster desert. A measly three large shellfish live on every square meter of riverbed there, which would have been nothing in the days when huge oyster reefs sometimes blocked boat traffic.
Now, though, it's a prize worth fighting over. This fall, the area is at the center of a debate that involves the bay's most vocal constituencies. It pits a long-range survival strategy for this decimated species against the short-term demands of Christmas dinner, which watermen say would produce a crucial income boost for their troubled industry.
Watermen have asked Virginia officials to reopen the area, which has been protected from harvest for 12 years. Oysters used to provide much of their winter income.
Scientists and environmentalists object to the opening, saying more time is needed for a comeback from overfishing, pollution and disease.
It's all part of a larger struggle about the future of this signature Chesapeake shellfish, with environmental groups and seafood groups pulling in opposite directions. Already, frustrated watermen have begun to ask: If the oysters are going to perish anyway, why shouldn't it be on the half shell?
"We have to take what God has given us out there," said Dale Taylor of Urbanna, Va., president of the Virginia Watermen's Assn. "Or they keep dying."
The protected area in the Rappahannock includes tens of thousands of acres of riverbed. Of that, state officials estimate, about 300 acres are suitable for oysters.
State officials say the area is one of the largest of the more than 130 protected zones around the bay. Scientists hope that shellfish protected from harvest will evolve so they can survive the bay's virulent oyster diseases.
"We don't have an area of that size, that has been closed for this length of time, or that contains so many oysters" in Virginia, said Jack Travelstead, deputy commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
If a harvest is allowed in part of the zone, Travelstead said, "everything that has been gained in that area would be lost."
But some watermen and seafood processors see something different here: a wasted opportunity. They think the harvest wouldn't do the kind of damage that some fear, and that it would guarantee an economic boost.
"Not only do I need oysters, I need watermen to catch 'em," and opening the sanctuary would help keep watermen in business, said Tommy Kellum, a seafood merchant from Weems, Va., who supports opening the protected area.
Next week, the Marine Resources Commission will meet to consider whether to open part of the area, perhaps for a 30-day harvest. That would mean watermen scraping oysters off the river bottom with a boat-drawn rake called a dredge.
Similar proposals have been rejected for the past four years. But this year is different, officials say: As the oyster harvest appears headed for another bad year, watermen's demands have gained momentum. "They're giving it a little bit of a more thorough look this time," Travelstead said of the commission.
'Prognosis is poor'
Some optimistic researchers believe that the oyster might eventually regain 5 to 20 percent of its historic population.
But others doubt the situation will ever get much better than it is now. They say the bivalves probably won't be killed off completely, but they will be reduced to a bit player in an ecosystem they used to dominate.
"The prognosis is poor," unless disease can somehow be conquered, said Chris Judy, shellfish program director with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "It'll be here, but it'll be here at a low level."
That's bad for the Chesapeake, because oysters filter out harmful dirt and algae.
And it's bad for the bay's estimated 9,000-plus watermen and the culture built around them. For years, even the Oyster Festival in the Rappahannock town of Urbanna has had to rely on oysters imported from the Gulf of Mexico. The first-graders competing to be crowned Little Miss Spat (named for a baby oyster) are still local, but the main ingredient in the oyster stews, oyster casseroles and oysters Rockefeller usually isn't.
So what now? A group led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Norfolk office is considering whether to introduce a new oyster from Asia, which is believed to be more resistant to disease. Another high-level group, a "Blue Ribbon Oyster Panel," has been appointed to consider Virginia's oyster options.
Both are expected to report back in 2007.
This fall, many of the questions these panels are facing are playing out, in miniature, in the Rappahannock debate. Watermen say they need help. But scientists and environmentalists say the needs of the oyster and the bay should get top priority.
In Norfolk, Va., Lower Chesapeake Bay Watermen's Assn. President Pete Nixon said he could see both sides, as well as the desperation inherent in the whole exercise.
"It's like it's the last - let's go out and kill the last hurt buffalo," Nixon said.