River closed for shellfish harvesting

Published 10:26 pm Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Virginia Department of Health closed a portion of the upper Nansemond River to shellfish harvesting on Thursday.

The area, which borders Sleepy Hole Park, was originally intended to be conditionally condemned effective Sept. 26, according to a VDH press release. However, due to the heavy rain this week, the state decided to condemn the area until Oct. 13.

The area is projected to reopen on Oct. 14.

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However, if there is another case of rainfall surpassing more than one-half inch within a 24-hour period, the area will remain condemned for an additional 10 days, according to a VDH press release.

“It’s not set in stone. It is constantly changing,” said Daniel Powell, geographic information system analyst with the VDH Division of Shellfish Sanitation.

Elizabeth Taraski, president of the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, said this will affect the livelihood of local fishermen and restaurants but stressed the importance of the precautionary measures.

Nansemond River Preservation Alliance members Boo Van Straten and her son, Jack, collect water samples in the Western Branch region of the Nansemond River.

Nansemond River Preservation Alliance members Boo Van Straten and her son, Jack, collect water samples in the Western Branch region of the Nansemond River.

The state warned against consuming any shellfish harvested in the condemned area, as it could cause norovirus, hepatitis A and shigellosis, according to a press release. The affected shellfish include oysters and clams.

The main reason the area was condemned was due to high bacteria concentrations.

Typically, there are high levels of bacteria after major rainfall. However, the state was concerned about the high levels in dry weather previous to this week.

Three entities have collaborated to address to the Nansemond River’s deteriorating health.

Representatives from the NRPA, the city’s public works department and the VDH Division of Shellfish Sanitation gathered in late May to identify and resolve sources of non-point containments.

“These can’t be directed from a specific source,” Taraski explained.

Each organization has its own waterway sampling program.

Since 2011, the NRPA has conducted monthly samplings at 15 sites along the Nansemond River, Shingle Creek and Bennett’s Creek. The state’s department of environmental quality would then collect and process the sampling data.

Also, since 2011, the city has collected monthly samples previously monitored by DEQ, which discontinued sampling in 2010 due to budget cuts. The sampling data is also submitted to the DEQ for processing.

Finally, the state’s shellfish sanitation division collects from 27 stations every four to six weeks using a systematic random sampling approach to be in compliance with national testing regulations.

The division agreed to expand to 75 sites in Suffolk, according to minutes from the May meeting. The NRPA and the city offered to help with the additional sites.

In the coming months, the state hopes to conduct sampling further downstream toward downtown, according to Taraski.

The largest bacteria concentrations are toward the base and northeast region of the river, according to a map provided by NRPA.

Taraski hypothesized the reason for growth toward the base of river was due to its close proximity to the downtown area, specifically at the Bleakhorn and Knotts creeks. Also, several tributaries toward the mouth of the river in the Western Branch region don’t receive enough tidal circulation, which causes bacteria to fester in those areas.

The sampling process is proving to be tedious and challenging, but all participants are passionate about improving the health of the Nansemond.

“We are trying to identify where the pollution is coming from,” said Dr. Todd Edgerton, a marine scientist supervisor with the VDH Division of Shellfish Sanitation.