Saturday, April 20, 2024

Oysters are Rebounding in Virginia Waters. The Bay Foundation Says it’s Time to Expand Efforts.

Oyster reefs within salt marshes off Oyster on the Eastern Shore emerge at low tide in November 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — While federal and state agencies are on track to meet oyster restoration goals for the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says more must be done to revive the species.

“Increasing oyster numbers benefits all facets of life in and along the Chesapeake,” said CBF Virginia Executive Director Chris Moore in a statement. “Now let’s expand on the achievements to date.”

Virginia has met oyster restoration goals set under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement in four targeted tributaries: the Lafayette, Piankatank, Great Wicomico and Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth rivers. The Lynnhaven and Lower York rivers still have not met their goals, along with the Manokin River in Maryland.

Now, the Bay Foundation is calling for restoration targets to be set for 20 more tributaries, in line with an oyster restoration master plan crafted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2012.

“I think we can use some of those datasets that are currently available to help guide the process,” said Moore in an interview.

The Bay Foundation is also urging Virginia to conduct a stock assessment of the oyster population in Virginia waters. Moore estimates such an assessment could be done by the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and Virginia Marine Resources Commission for roughly $300,000 to $500,000.

“We actually have a tremendous amount of data already in order to do this,” Moore said.

While oysters once flourished in the Chesapeake Bay, their numbers were severely depleted over the years by overfishing, pollution and habitat loss. The Congressional Research Service found that between the late 1800s and the late 1990s, annual harvests in the Bay fell from over 120 million pounds to less than 1 million pounds.

Since then, populations have begun to rebound. Environmental groups and policymakers have particularly sought to restore oyster reefs because of the water quality benefits the species provides and the protection they offer from erosion. Oysters also have a significant economic impact in Virginia, with an annual dockside value of $40 million.

On a press call Thursday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Don Boesch, president emeritus of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, emphasized oysters’ role in stabilizing the banks of waterways as sea levels rise and erode shorelines.

Additionally, they noted, oysters’ natural filtration of water helps reduce phosphorus and nitrogen pollution in the Bay, reducing “dead zones” where other aquatic life and vegetation struggle to survive.

“These have to be viewed as hand in hand,” said Boesch.

In 2022, Virginia put $16 million toward constructing reefs in the Lafayette, Lynnhaven, Piankatank, Great Wicomico and Lower York rivers. The multi-member Chesapeake Oyster Alliance initiative has also planted about 5.9 million oysters throughout the Bay, with a goal of planting 10 million by next year, said CBF Maryland Executive Director Allison Colden.

Moore previously has attributed some of the success of oysters in Virginia waters to the species’ growing resistance to certain diseases and saltier waters.

Virginia has also adopted a range of policies to encourage the species’ rebound. In 2023, the General Assembly created an oyster recycling tax credit to incentivize restaurants to collect and return shells to the Bay so oysters can repopulate. This year, Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Hanover, and Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, have introduced budget amendments in the amounts of $100,000 and $150,000, respectively, for oyster revitalization projects in the Potomac River.

“Oysters are the bedrock of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem,” said CBF Maryland Executive Director Allison Colden in a statement. “You can’t overstate their importance to the Bay.”

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