Doug McMinn would rather work on the Rappahannock River than talk to politicians.
Yet that's exactly what he was doing over the winter when state lawmakers began tinkering with Virginia's oyster aquaculture laws.
McMinn and fellow oyster growers convinced Democrats and
to scrap the changes, which he said would have done more harm than good.
"We can't just fly under the radar anymore," said McMinn, whose farm produces roughly 3 million oysters a year, making it one of Virginia's largest.
After years of development, oyster aquaculture is booming in Virginia — sales are up 12-fold from 2005 to 2009, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
The reason: scientific advances, including the proliferation of a genetically modified oyster, has made growing the briny delicacy easier.
As a result, the trade is spreading from longtime fishing communities to tonier enclaves, where oyster cages and workboats are not always welcome.
Some of the proposed legislation would have addressed these concerns, including a bill to make 1,000 acres in the
Bay and its tributaries exclusive to oyster aquaculture.
The bill, which included a subsidy up to $1,100, could have reduced conflicts between farmers and other users of the bay, including recreational boaters, said its author, Del. Albert C. Pollard, Jr., a Northern Neck Democrat.
Industry officials countered that Virginia has an established and inexpensive guide to growing oysters. Aquaculture opportunity zones, as Pollard called them, are unnecessary and a step toward zoning, they said.
"The system is working well," said A.J. Erskine, who manages farms on the Rappahannock for Bevans Oyster Co. and Cowart Seafood Corp. "If it's not broken, then why try to fix it."
Opportunity zones could potentially create "an unfair advantage for any company/individual operating out of these areas," McMinn and Irv Spurlock, co-owners of Chesapeake Bay Oyster Co., wrote in a Jan. 3 letter to the
State lawmakers agreed and canceled the program in February.
Critics complain that McMinn and others are trying to keep the market — and lucrative state contracts — to themselves.
The state paid Chesapeake Bay Oyster Co. more than $600,000 in 2009 and 2010 for oyster growing equipment and seed, according to commission data. The money was part of a federal grant to train watermen to become oyster farmers.
Erskine's employers received more than $286,000 during the same time for oyster shells, which the state deposits back into the bay.
New businesses could theoretically jump into the action by selling seed or equipment to the state at lower prices.
That Virginia's leading oyster growers oppose a law written to make aquaculture easier doesn't sit well with Ernest Bowden, an Eastern Shore watermen who serves on the commission.
"I don't want to see four or five big growers have a stranglehold on the industry and we're heading that way now," he said.
McMinn and Erskine both said that they welcome competition and that they routinely share techniques and advice with novices. But Pollard's law might have encouraged haphazard farming, which, in turn, could reflect poorly on the entire industry, McMinn said.
Another bill — introduced by state Sen.
, R-James City, on behalf of real estate mogul Greg Garrett — would have opened vast tracts of suburban waterfront communities to commercial aquaculture.
It sparked a firestorm in
, where Garrett lives and petitioned to set 1,530 cages — enough to hold 765,000 mature oysters — in a cove near his home.
The bill, which died in the House, raised questions about the industry's future.
Until now, it has been the province of scientists, and a few oyster processors and watermen, whose livelihood depends on the industry's success. A businessman, such as Garrett, can fall back on real estate should his aquaculture prospects fail.
"That's part of the concern," said Thomas J. Murray, a seafood economist at VIMS. "These oyster companies are fully invested in this."
Added to their worries is the U.S.
, which enacted tougher harvesting laws in the Gulf of Mexico to prevent food-borne illness. Many believe the rules will eventually apply in Virginia.
Oyster processors fear any violation may result in the banning of out-of-state sales, which could hurt sales of shucked oysters. The threat has McMinn and others concerned about oyster growers with less experience.