TURF—Not the Grass Kind, in Chesapeake Bay

One fellow researches the factors limiting private oyster lease use

Shellfish aquaculture land leased by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission at Cherrystone Inlet on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Photo from ESRI, ArcGIS Online.
Shellfish aquaculture land leased by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission at Cherrystone Inlet on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Photo from ESRI, ArcGIS Online.

By Chris Patrick, science writer

Jennifer Beckensteiner. ©VASG
Jennifer Beckensteiner. ©VASG

As a marine scientist, Jennifer Beckensteiner’s interests go beyond basic research. She’s also passionate about resource management—passionate enough to earn two separate master’s degrees: one in ecology and biodiversity management, and another in fisheries science.

“I did both to have cross-disciplinary skills,” she says. Now, as a Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellow at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Beckensteiner is combining and cultivating these skills by studying TURF in Chesapeake Bay. But not the grass kind.

TURF stands for Territorial Use Rights for Fisheries. They are areas in which indviduals or groups have exclusive rights to harvest resources. A type of TURF familiar to many coastal Virginians is the private oyster lease, which gives an oyster grower rights to a parcel of river floor, where they can grow oysters. Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) currently leases and oversees more than 100,000 acres of private shellfish aquaculture leases in the lower Chesapeake Bay.

“We don’t know if they are intensively used for oyster production or not,” says Beckensteiner. If they are underutilized, she wants to help boost lease use. Growing more oysters would promote the industry. These filter-feeding bivalves also improve water quality and provide habitat for other animals.

To optimize lease use, she must determine what factors might be preventing some people from growing oysters on their TURF. Using oyster grower surveys and VMRC data on lease area and turnover, she will identify trends in oyster lease use since the 1970s.

Beckensteiner will compare these trends to economic and environmental factors, like oyster seed price and salinity, to determine how these factors influence lease use. Then she’ll put everything into a model that will predict which areas may be the best for growing oysters. These predictions would help oyster growers, as well as VMRC.

“We want to lift the barriers of oyster production for growers,” Beckensteiner explains. “And if we know why people do not use their lease, it can help the managers to see if an area could be more productive.” This project combines her two passions, research and management—she views TURFs as a tool to manage the number of oysters in Chesapeake Bay.

“I think this tool has been really successful in other countries,” she notes. “It’s just here we are not taking total advantage of it.” Beckensteiner also studies TURFs in Chile, where they are used by villages along the Chilean coast to manage coastal resources like loco, a species of large edible sea snail, and sea urchin.

Jennifer Beckensteiner (right) interviews fishermen in Chile. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Beckensteiner.
Jennifer Beckensteiner (right) interviews fishermen in Chile. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Beckensteiner.

While fishing inside a TURF area is usually controlled, anyone can fish in the open-access areas between them. This might result in concentrated fishing and resource depletion in the open-access areas.

“All the benefits of the TURF might be counterbalanced by the negative effects in the open-access areas,” Beckensteiner says. To see if that’s happening, she’s looking at how an extensive Chilean TURF network affects the harvest of coastal resources in open-access and exclusive-access areas. Her study entails interviewing the harvesters themselves, or Chilean fishermen. She also hopes to interview oyster growers in Virginia as she investigates the factors that might be limiting private oyster lease use in Chesapeake Bay.

Beckensteiner is currently earning her PhD in marine spatial planning and fisheries management at VIMS. Her 2011 master’s in ecology and biodiversity management is from the University of Montpellier II in Montpellier, France and her 2013 master’s in fisheries science is from the grande école Agrocampus Ouest in Rennes, France. She received her bachelor’s in biology from the University of Lyon I in 2009. She is a native of Lyon, France.

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