Life of a Waterman Tour
Join Friends of the Rappahannock for a boating trip on the Rappahannock River to gain an understanding of the challenges of a fisherman. On Saturday, June 13, be prepared to help catch lunch for the day while learning about the problems that today's watermen face, and what we may be able to do about them. Bring plenty of water, a snack, and sunscreen. Minimum age is 12 years. Preregister at www.riverfriends.org as space is limited. Only 6 seats are available. The cost is $75 for individuals/$225 for families ($60/$180 for members). Meet at Simonsons, 2899 Simonson Road in Farnham. 8 am – noon. Rain or shine. Call (804)443-3448 for more information.
Friends of the Rappahannock Stand Up
One non-profit group with a track record of results is the Friends of the Rapphannock (FOR) based in Fredericksburg with a satellite office in Tappahannock. Since 1985, FOR has focused on the upper Rappahannock above and below Fredericksburg, where they are based, with great success. Looking to expand their mission, FOR brought Richard Moncure aboard as their Tidal Rappahannock River Steward in January 2011.
Based in Tappahannock, Moncure is the lone, independent person defending the lower section of the largest state river from Fredericksburg to the Bay. No small task, but Moncure is undaunted. He is not a man who stands still often nor has time for small talk. A kinetic energy and rapid-fire verbal delivery reveal a native anxious about the river and his readiness to take action, as if it were a personal matter.
Passionate about the challenges the River Country faces, Moncure believes coalition building is the key to a healthier river. He has established alliances with oyster farmers, businesses, land conservancies, schools and non-profits. In his work, Moncure preaches FOR's core mission of advocacy, restoration and education, and is even-handed about controversial topics. Raised in the Stratford Hall area in and on the Potomac River, Moncure is a water rat from his youth. He has a natural gusto about his marine mission in life. Growing up in his family seafood restaurant business, he knows firsthand the importance of a healthy regional seafood economy—“from fisherman to fork.”
After college, Moncure did a Peace Corps stint in Africa then returned to the family seafood business. He then worked in the aquaculture field before running his own seafood market. Now living in Simonson with his family of “water people,” Moncure keeps a close eye and a finger on the pulse of the region's waterways and seafood industry. A licensed watermen and soon-to-be certified captain, he intimately knows the waters and lands of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.
Evidence of Moncure's wide-ranging efforts cover the walls of his FOR office tucked into a marina building on the water. Maps, and graphs visualize progress and issues. Just outside the door his weathered SUV awaits, and down on the river his outboard river steward boat sits in its slip ready for launch, Batman-style.
Even when standing still, Moncure appears to be in motion whether on land or water. As he works to restore the lower Rappahannock and collaborates with oyster farmers as part of his effort, you might say he is a man who in his mid-thirties has the river and the world—literally—as his oyster.
Oysters Rebound—with a Helping Hand
The Virginia oyster industry was decimated by pollution in the 1980s. Starting in the early 1990s, the traditional oyster businesses and now oyster farmers started to bring back the Virginia oyster through aquaculture and wild, seeded oyster beds. Today, premium Virginia oysters raised by aquatic farmers are putting the state back on the shellfish map and raising awareness about the plight of the Rappahannock and the bay.
As most river and Bay folks know, an adult oyster can filter fifty gallons of river water per day—gobbling up algae and removing dirt and nitrogen pollution, like a mini water-treatment plant. Their revival holds huge potential to heal our waters. But is it too late? To have an impact, hundreds of millions of oysters are needed. In response, a wide range of traditional oyster houses and new-age oyster farmers welcome the challenge, and their operations are doing immense good for the health of our state waters Moncure has been keen to identify oyster farming as a key to help raise the profile of the Rappahannock. He is working intimately with these new-age watermen or “aqua-preneurs.” Ironically, just as pollution decimated the oysters, these same crustaceans are on the front lines of restoring water quality. Most importantly, perhaps, they offer a viable, long-term solution based on the ecology of the bay and rivers. (see New-Age Watermen in this issue)
Although oyster farming is still mostly a cottage industry, any and all oyster growth is vital to rehabilitating the Rappahannock and bay. To further enhance the comeback of the oyster industry, the state is poised to launch the Virginia Oyster Trail in early 2016 to promote the re-emergence of our mostly “human-made” mollusks.
A New Threat from Fracking?
Beyond the optimism of the new oyster revolution, there is now a new menace on the horizon that may only compound water pollution issues: fracking. Driven once again by an appetite for cheap energy and growth for growth's sake, the controversial practice of fracking is being pursued irrespective of the risks.
Earlier this year it was revealed—and broadcast by Moncure after he attended county commission meetings—that 80,000 acres of land have been leased in the Northern Neck for fracking. The oil extraction method sweeping the country injects water and chemicals into the earth to force out oil and natural gas. It requires untold amounts of water, which then becomes contaminated waste. Fracking is already suspected of polluting aquifers in other states even though energy companies profess it a safe process. In response to what he believes is a misguided notion, Moncure replies, “You cannot easily heal an aquifer or a river after it is poisoned by dangerous chemicals. Our local economies could take a major hit if that were to happen.”
In addition to the threats to water quality, Moncure also sees the results of human indifference to the environment, like evidence of a crime being committed: endless trash accumulations in and along the river. To combat the problem, he regularly leads clean ups along the river. Sadly and ironically, one of the biggest sources of trash is fishermen.
To date, Moncure has accomplished measurable results and is building relationships with the touch of a proactive diplomat. His days and often his evenings are filled with water trips, meetings, articles to read and write, emails, and conference calls. Through it all, Moncure glides ahead through the choppy waters. Most impressively, he has recruited volunteer water quality monitors to gather better real-time data about conditions. As a result, he has already identified dead zones as far up the Rappahannock as Tappahannock. FOR's independent, objective information is critical to alerting the public about the facts, particularly since cutbacks to state environmental agencies have hampered their ability to collect data. In mid-November 2014, Moncure hosted a FOR event in Topping—with oysters served, of course—to provide educational information to a range of river advocates and stakeholders, including oyster farmers, businesses and land owners.
Regarding the ecological problems he fears, Moncure tells the truth without any sign of resignation. “Pollution is the unseen evil. Like a ticking time bomb we cannot hear or see. And it’s been ticking since the 1970s. Time will tell, but time is short.”
At the end of the day, the Rappahannock, the Bay and regional waterways face one force that perhaps cannot be stopped: the endless march of growth and the environmental degradation it causes. If allowed to continue unabated, our regional waterways may one day soon become permanent dead zones devoid of micro- and macroscopic organic growth. Hence, aquatic life will likely degrade and the economic means of many river and Bay businesses, and people will be in jeopardy.
At What Cost to Civilization?
As River Country residents try to comprehend the extent and pernicious nature of water pollution, the truth is beginning to bite. In reality, we live in a billion-year-old ecosystem perfected over time. Ignoring the gravity of science, humans have chosen instead to impose their ideas on the environment as if to know better. Just one problem. Mother Nature always has the last word, as the earth is showing us with the effects of climate change, a related topic that further threatens the River Country.
Though our state waterways are degrading, there are bright spots. Record eagle flocks on the Rappahannock and large heron rookeries on the James in Richmond are encouraging, as is blue crab production in the Bay. Such feel-good stories, however, suggest that wildlife and marine life are simply tolerating the effects of pollution—as long as they can.
Wherever you live in the River Country, there is water nearby. And that water is, if you will, in people's blood. Families, relations, livelihoods and recreation are often tied to the water. Being connected to the water is to be entwined in the rhythms of the season and the cycles of life. For many, the river is a powerful biblical symbol of life's journey. The pollution of such a powerful life force and bountiful source of sustenance and beauty would be an epic tragedy. If one day it is too late to revive our waters and we wonder how this could have happened, we will realize that humans have been undone by their own hand. We will have fouled our own nest.
The Rappahannock River’s name is derived from an Algonquian Indian word meaning “quick rising waters.” For generations, the rising and falling of the tides of our ancient waters has sustained life for centuries. Today, in less than a generation, an invisible, slow-motion, rising tide of pollution and environmental problems could alter our once pristine waterways with dangerous and long-lasting consequences. Have we passed the tipping point? pl
We welcome readers’ input on this topic. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friends of the Rappahannock contact information: Tapphannock, VA office, 804 443-3448. Fredericksburg office, 540 373-3448. www.riverfriends.org
The Rappahannock River was recently featured in an award-winning film, Rappahannock: The Story of an Historic and Beautiful River and Its People. DVD copies can be ordered through the Friends of the Rapphannock (www.riverfriends.org). Rappahannock received an award from the RVA Environmental Film Fesitval in Richmond, Virginia in 2015.
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