The James River Association has deep concerns regarding sustained, illegal harvesting taking place within the protected oyster sanctuary at Wreck Shoals on the James River as documented by recent oyster surveys conducted by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). Poaching damages sanctuary reefs and harms their ability to provide much-needed seed oysters for surrounding, publicly harvestable areas, as well as broader ecological benefits of oyster reefs. To safeguard these sanctuary reefs, their public benefits and the lawful harvesters that rely on them, we strongly urge VMRC to take the necessary steps to strengthen law enforcement for their preservation, monitor for their safety and health, and build awareness of the protected nature of oyster sanctuaries.

The James River Association is a member-supported nonprofit organization founded in 1976 to serve as a guardian and voice for the James River. Throughout the James River’s 10,000-square mile watershed, JRA works toward its vision of a fully healthy James River supporting thriving communities. Our thousands of members and supporters have important economic, professional, and personal interests in the health of the James River. 

Oyster poaching feared after sharp decline in numbers in James River sanctuary
By Dave Ress • Daily Press

“James River Association President William Street said the loss of that many oysters — each one of which can filter 50 gallons of water a day — has a major impact on water quality in the river… The decline, which he also believes is due to poaching, cuts the supply of spat — baby oysters — to thousands of acres of surrounding public oyster reefs. Private lease-holders also rely on spat from Wreck Shoals to replenish their oysters, he said.”

 The Wreck Shoals-James River Oyster Sanctuary Area

In addition to their importance to Virginia’s commercial seafood industry, oyster reefs provide valuable structure and habitat for a wide variety of aquatic organisms in the James River, as well as water filtration services. Thanks to strong management by VMRC, improvements to water quality, and disease resistance in wild stocks, the James River has seen marked population increases from 2006-2020 and now represent over 80% of Virginia’s wild oyster population and the largest source of Virginia’s total oyster harvest.

Strong management of the James River public oyster grounds remains critical to sustaining a healthy oyster population that benefits overall water quality and biodiversity in the James River estuary. The James River seed area, a reef complex extending from Deep Water Shoals to the James River Bridge in Newport News, has been a critically important source of seed oysters up and down the Atlantic coast for well over a century. Accordingly, these areas are protected by Virginia law from dredging operations and have remained open only to hand tonging, a harvest method that minimizes destruction of the reef structure and is limited to shallow waters. As a result, the contiguous oyster reef complex spans over  5,000 acres and is considered one of the largest and last remaining natural three-dimensional oysters reefs on the East Coast.

At the center of the highly productive James River seed area lies Wreck Shoal, a 585-acre oyster reef designated as a protected sanctuary by the Virginia General Assembly in 2009. The largest oyster sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay, Wreck Shoal is a powerhouse of oyster reproduction and promotes natural spat set for thousands of acres of surrounding public reefs. Designated oyster sanctuaries receive enhanced protection under state law. It is unlawful to harvest oysters within designated oyster sanctuaries, including The Wreck Shoals-James River Oyster Sanctuary Area.

Indication and Impacts of Illicit Harvest Activities

VMRC and VIMS conduct oyster surveys of public oyster reefs each fall between the months of October and December. The density and volume of oysters for each reef are estimated based on the averages collected during sampling. Beginning with the 2020 Fall survey, VMRC noted a significant decline in the volume and density of oysters within the Wreck Shoal Sanctuary. According to VMRC communications, sampling suggested a nearly 30% loss of the entire reef, with declines in oysters of all sizes, from spat to market. To confirm these findings, a second survey specifically targeting areas where density was historically high also observed significant losses. There were no signs that the losses were caused by natural, environmental factors. VMRC staff found it more likely that the survey findings were a result of extensive and sustained illegal harvest from the sanctuary.

VMRC staff estimate the loss suffered at Wreck Shoal to be roughly 42,000 bushels of market oysters and 135,000 bushels of shell, at a value of over $2 million. These figures are an alarming theft from a protected sanctuary, but not an unimaginable one. In one VMRC expert’s judgment, this level of poaching could be easily managed by a handful of unnoticed boats consistently pulling 50 bushels per day, one day each week, in the early morning hours. The impact of illegal poaching activities within protected sanctuaries extend beyond the immediate loss of water-filtering oysters and productive habitat. Wreck Shoals provides safe haven for seed oysters to settle, grow, and spawn, helping the James River seed area remain a prolific source of the spat, or settling oyster larvae, needed for publicly harvestable and private oyster beds. As a consequence, oyster reefs in the James River have fared much better than oyster stocks across the Chesapeake Bay, which have fallen below 1% of historic populations due to overharvesting, disease, and loss of habitat. Unlawful harvesters are damaging resources that lawful watermen rely on for a sustainable and thriving oyster industry, as well as the broader ecological benefits for the Commonwealth.

Needed Actions: Enforcement, Monitoring, and Awareness

To safeguard the Wreck Shoal Oyster Sanctuary, the surrounding seed area, and the lawful harvesters that rely on them, we strongly urge you to consider the following actions to increase recognition, promote monitoring, and strengthen law enforcement of our critical oyster reef resources.

● Strengthen law enforcement. Effective enforcement of Virginia’s shellfish regulations is essential to ensure a sustainable oyster population. VMRC’s enforcement activities need consistent funding on par with other law enforcement agencies to enforce regulations and protect the Commonwealth’s public trust resources. Those who violate the law and poach from oyster sanctuaries must be held accountable, particularly for a sanctuary reef as important as Wreck Shoals.

● Install a buoy and camera system. Installing a buoy with a mounted camera would promote the health and safety of the Wreck Shoal sanctuary, allowing VMRC to monitor local water quality and poaching activities. This practice has been successful in Maryland as both a deterrent and a tool for enforcement. A range of technology is available, including mounted camera systems, infrared cameras, and invisible fencing capable of identifying when vessels enter the sanctuary.

● Build awareness regarding the importance of our protected sanctuaries. Protected areas like Wreck Shoal play essential roles in the health of our river’s ecosystem and the future of our sustainable seafood industry. Encourage Virginians to be aware of unlawful activity in these areas and the impact that those activities have on lawful harvesters and a shared public resource.