Experts want to introduce new residents to the Chesapeake Bay — 10 billion of them.
For years, scientists have issued warnings about oyster depletion in the Bay area due to overharvesting and the destruction of reefs.
They estimate that 150 years ago, more than 1 trillion oysters lived in the Chesapeake Bay.
Those numbers have dropped drastically, with current estimations resting under 10 billion oyster total in the 4,479-square-mile estuary, according to Don Boesch, a professor and president of emeritus at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Now, organizations in Virginia and Maryland are partnering with a common restoration goal in mind: To add 10 billion new oysters to the Bay area and some of its tributaries, including the Lynnhaven, Lafayette and lower York rivers, by 2025.
“Oysters are so much more than tasty bivalves that many know them to be.” —John Racanelli
“They are a crucial part of our ocean planet. They help keep our waterways clean by removing harmful pollutants and they provide a hospitable place for other animals to live — from the backwaters of the Chesapeake Bay to the vast Atlantic Ocean,” he added.
The initiative aims to pour “robust” funding into restoring the Bay’s natural oyster reef system, while implementing “science-based” management of harvesting and expanding Virginia and Maryland’s aquaculture industries.
“It’s so important for the culture of watermen and Virginia,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Oyster Restoration Manager Jackie Shannon.
“Oysters are good for the economy. Watermen fill in jobs, and the trickle-down effects of having a thriving oyster economy — it goes down to the people who make the ice and the coolers to transport oysters,” Shannon added.
Shannon said that watermen can responsibly harvest oysters in several ways, including aquaculture. This involves watermen using leased oyster grounds, bags or cages to grow oyster seed, which are oyster larvae that are offered a tiny piece of shell fragment — comparable to a grain of sand — to attach themselves to and grow on.
Aquaculture encourages the growth of single oysters, instead of clusters that would naturally happen in the Bay, Shannon said.
Aquaculture oysters are still beneficial to the environment. They filter algae and sediment, like their natural counterparts, according to the news release.
For watermen who want to harvest natural oysters, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has worked to ensure that clusters aren’t depleted. Their efforts include implementing bushel limits, surveying oyster beds for health and keeping some beds off-limits during certain harvesting years to ensure that the clusters aren’t overworked, Shannon said.
“They really keep their finger on the pulse of how healthy these reefs are and how many harvests they can withstand.” — Jackie Shannon
On the Southside, organizations like the CBF, Lynnhaven NOW and the Elizabeth River Project have been working to restore the oyster populations in the Lafayette and Lynnhaven rivers.
The CBF and ERP were awarded about $826,000 in oyster restoration grants in September 2017. The money was dedicated to oyster restoration in the Lafayette River, Southside Daily reported.
A month later, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that oyster farmers could apply for $260,000 to help restore oyster populations in private shellfish grounds.
In 2017, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe dubbed November as “Oyster Month” in Virginia, and the CBF put out a call to restaurants and residents asking them to recycle oyster shells to be used for restoration.
“Many people don’t realize that oyster shells are a precious resource that should go back in the water,” oyster restoration specialist Heather North said in November. “By simply saving used shells, restaurants are helping rebuild oyster reefs that in turn support local seafood. Our network of restaurants and volunteers is a key part of boosting Virginia’s oyster population.”
Lynnhaven River Now has worked to restore the waterway for which it was named. The organization has reduced pollutants entering the Lynnhaven River substantially since 2002. At that time, only 1 percent of the river was open to shellfish harvest. This year, that percentage has increased to 46, Executive Director Karen Forget wrote in the news release.
“Oyster reef restoration efforts over the past five years have been very successful in producing dense populations that are surviving, reproducing and adding greatly to the supply of oyster larvae in the bay,” Boesch said.
This article was published in partnership with our sister publication, Southside Daily.