Longtime waterman Ken Smith of Kilmarnock, is tired of waiting for government to come up with ways to restore the oyster industry and clean up the Chesapeake Bay, so he’s decided to take on the task himself as a private businessman.
"We have waited 35 years to get this bay clean," said Smith. "In 1994, we were promised we’d have a 10-fold increase by 2010. If the government can’t do it, we’re getting the private sector to do it."
Working with former real estate developer and company founder W. Tolar Nolley Jr. of North; Virginia Marine Resources Commission retiree Roy Insley of Poquoson; and Dr. Russell Burke of Gloucester Point, chief marine scientist for Commonwealth Pro Dive, Smith is launching the Oyster Company of Virginia, an eco-friendly business that he hopes will restore the native oyster and clean up the bay while putting watermen back to work as aquaculturists.
"Oysters have economic and ecological benefits," said Smith. "The more oysters, the better chance of sunlight getting to the aquatic grasses and making a nursery for crabs, and the better chance of keeping the heritage of the waterman alive."
Smith said that, although a program backed with federal crab disaster funds has helped a few watermen start their own oyster aquaculture businesses over the past couple of years, it will take private investment to create such opportunities on a long-term basis.
But watermen, already cash-strapped because of dwindling resources, foreign competition, and a bad economy, don’t have the money to invest themselves.
"What waterman can buy 900 cages and two million seed and wait two years for that income?" said Smith.
He said his company is leasing oyster bottom and purchasing 12 boats in order to give a dozen teams of watermen a start as independent contractors in the oyster aquaculture business. The only additional things needed, he said, are the 900 aquaculture cages per boat and the two million oyster seed per team.
That’s where private residents who want to see the Chesapeake Bay restored come in. Oyster Company of Virginia is offering people an opportunity to purchase the cages and the oyster seed so that the watermen can begin working once again and the oysters can begin filtering the water.