Oysters from Virginia’s Lynnhaven River were once world-renowned. In the 1800s, U.S. presidents and European royalty alike dined on briny bivalves sourced from the Lynnhaven, and rumor holds they were served aboard the Titanic.
While the humble Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) can be found all along the East Coast, the unique combination of water temperature and salinity found in the Lynnhaven—located just miles from where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic—made its flavor exceptional.
But fame couldn’t keep the Lynnhaven oyster safe from decline. Over the years, harvest pressure, loss of habitat and water pollution converged to decimate oyster populations in the waterway: by 1990, oysters in the Lynnhaven were at one percent of their historic levels. In particular, bacteria entering the river from human and animal waste led many parts of the river to be closed to oyster harvesting for decades. In 2006, the entire Lynnhaven was condemned for shellfish harvesting because of high bacteria levels.
Today, however, the story of the Lynnhaven oyster is one of hope. Spurred to action after watching their river suffer decades of decline, local groups like Lynnhaven River NOW worked—and continue to work—to restore the waterway. Bacteria levels have been reduced, thanks to the help of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) implemented for bacteria in the river’s shellfish areas and the designation of the region as a No Discharge Zone, meaning boaters are banned from discharging holding tanks into the river.
As of earlier this year, 42 percent of the Lynnhaven had been reopened to oyster harvesting—encouraging news for oyster farmers like Captain Chris Ludford of Ludford Brothers Oyster Company, home of the Pleasure House Oyster.
“People lost confidence in eating oysters,” Ludford says. “Now, we’re reaping the rewards of cleaner water… people are more confident in the oysters and more confident in the things they’re eating.”
In the world of oyster aquaculture, Ludford is somewhat of an artisan. Each oyster is “hand-crafted” by Ludford and a team of his family and friends, who complete nearly all the work by hand: selecting, tumbling, grading, cleaning, counting and packaging the oysters for sale to nearby restaurants. The only machinery involved is the boat he uses to reach the oysters, and even that he hopes to switch to an electric motor in the next few years.
Ludford has been actively growing oysters on the Lynnhaven since 2010. He currently manages close to 60 acres of both farmed and wild oysters—including a wild reef he’s working to rebuild—all while continuing his job as a fireboat captain for the Virginia Beach Fire Department. He also offers tours of his farms and allows researchers from Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Christopher Newport University and other institutions to study his oysters.
Business is steady, with Pleasure House Oysters on the menu at seven top restaurants in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, but Ludford is committed to keeping his operation small. For him, three groups benefit from his local, small-scale approach: the first two being his family and his customers.
“We built a business on a hand-crafted oyster. Staying small and staying local allows us to do that,” Ludford explains. “Our customers, mainly restaurants and the people who patronize those restaurants, they come there for our oysters. They know my family puts a lot of love—about two years of love—into each oyster.”
The third beneficiary of Ludford’s hand-crafted approach “can’t really speak for themselves, and that’s the environment,” Ludford says. “The river itself likes to see a small operation, I believe, because we have a small footprint on the environment.” His work to rebuild wild oyster reefs also provides habitat to other river residents, including oyster toadfish, gobies, blue crabs, sea bass, periwinkles and countless other species.
In recent years, Ludford has watched what he calls an “oyster revolution” take hold. In the past, pollution made even those who had grown up eating oysters wary of consuming them. These days, not only are veteran ostreophiles—or oyster lovers—returning to the scene, but a new generation of oyster-eaters has emerged. Ludford sees it as a way to remind people that what they’re eating is a measure of the Lynnhaven’s health.
“Oysters are the canary in the coal mine,” Ludford says. “If the water is clean enough to eat the oysters from, then it’s a great compliment for the people who live and play and recreate on that water.”
Not only are healthy oysters a sign of a healthy waterway, the bivalves also help to clean the water even further. As filter feeders, oysters feed by pumping water through their gills, trapping particles of pollution in the process. In a single day, one oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water. Multiplied by thousands of oyster cages, each holding hundreds of oysters, the result is a water-filtering powerhouse.
“When [people] see an oyster farmer or an oysterman behind their house, they should be happy that they’re there,” Ludford says. “We’re contributing to cleaning the water even further, and it’s a great indicator of how clean that water is.”
To see more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Video by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson and Will Parson
A healthy Chesapeake Bay brings with it a multitude of benefits, including cleaner water for swimming and boating and habitat to support more fish and wildlife. But when Chesapeake Bay Program partners signed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement in 2014, they committed to a vision for a wholly sustainable Bay: not just environmentally, but economically as well. Spanning six states and Washington D.C., the Chesapeake Bay region contains more than 18 million people who are all connected to the Bay and its waterways, and many of whom, in whether directly or indirectly, rely on the Bay’s contribution to the region’s economy. Below are five industries tied to a healthy Bay.
Recreation and tourism
The Chesapeake Bay, its rivers and streams and the surrounding forests, mountains and outdoor sights are a huge draw to visitors, both watershed residents and those from out of the area. The region’s 55 National Park Service sites, scores of state parks, 15 wildlife refuges, 1,269 public access sites and hundreds of cultural areas draw millions of people to the outdoors each year to enjoy all these sites have to offer.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 16.5 million people in the states of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia participated in wildlife-related recreation, such as hunting or bird-watching, in 2011. Furthermore, those people spent over $18 billion dollars on trip-related expenses, equipment and other needs.
Millions of visitors means a need for staff to operate the parks, guides to lead trips, outfitters to supply equipment, hotels to house visitors and so much more. Employers in recreation and tourism in the region support over 820,800 jobs and over $13 billion in income annually; another 20,000 self-employed participants also attribute to this industry.
While all of these parks and public access points are important, watershed residents don’t reap all the benefits if they are not healthy—which can in turn hurt local businesses. For example, chemical contaminants in the water can be ingested and carried by fish of all sizes, and subsequent fish consumption advisories can lead to fewer trips on the water and lost sales at gear shops. Similarly, a 2005 fish kill in the Shenandoah River, likely caused by poor water quality, led to an estimated $700,000 in lost retail sales and revenue.
Commercial fishing has long been associated with the Chesapeake Bay. The iconic image of the Bay is of watermen out on the water, putting down crab pots or tonging for oysters. These aren’t just images, but real people doing real—and often difficult—jobs. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the fishing industry accounts for 7,952 jobs in the states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Blue crabs are an important species that require clean water, abundant beds of underwater grasses and sufficient dissolved oxygen to survive. A healthy Bay not only supports the stability and growth of their population, but also supports a regional—and national—industry. In 2014, Maryland and Virginia accounted for over one-third of total blue crab landings revenue in the United States, totaling over $80 million.
Outside of the Bay itself are rivers and streams that are vital habitat to important species like striped bass. Also known as rockfish, striped bass return to the Bay each year to spawn in its freshwater tributaries, and are a prized up and down the East Coast for commercial and recreational fishing.
Along with oysters, blue crabs and striped bass, the Bay and its tributaries support fishing of scallops, black sea bass, menhaden, summer flounder and white perch—to name a few.
Aquaculture, or underwater farming, is the growing of fish and shellfish in a controlled environment. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 137 aquaculture farms in Maryland and Virginia generated nearly $62 million in sales in 2013. Two-thirds of those farms were raising shellfish like clams and oysters and likely used the Bay and its tributaries to grow their stock. A clean Bay means healthy oyster habitat: the water needs to be clean enough to keep so that their oysters aren’t buried in sediment or exposed to other things that could weaken and kill them.
Aquaculture is a particularly large industry in Virginia, where in 2013, it made up over 30 percent of hard clam and Eastern oyster aquaculture sales in the U.S.
Outside of the growing or catching of fish is an entire industry situated to support it. Distributors transport fish to supermarkets, canning facilities and restaurants that turn around and sell that food to consumers. Some fish is processed and turned into other products such as fish oils and pet food. From processors and dealers to wholesale and distributors, the seafood industry contributes to over 24,000 jobs in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
With more and more people wanting to buy local food, supermarkets and restaurants both on the Bay and throughout the region benefit from having an abundance of watermen and commercial fisheries nearby.
But the process doesn’t end at the table. Organizations like the Oyster Recovery Partnership collect oyster shells and return them to the Bay and its tributaries to help bolster and rebuild oyster reefs. While baby oysters can grow on a number of surfaces, they prefer to attach to oyster shells, so recycling old shell is the best way to promote reef growth. And since oysters are filter feeders—meaning they help clean the Bay’s water as they eat and grow—more oysters means a cleaner Bay and a stronger seafood industry.
Restoring the Bay’s health means reducing the amount of pollutants like nutrients and sediment in the rivers and streams that empty into the Bay. But sending cleaner water to the Bay also means sending cleaner water to utility companies and wastewater treatment plants. By reducing the amount of pollutants in the water, water utility companies reduce costs needed to bring water up to standards. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that for every $1 spent of source-water protection, $27 were saved in water treatment costs.
One of a utility’s biggest costs is removing coagulants—sediment—from the water. A Brooking’s Institute study found that a one percent decrease in sediment in the water can lead to a 0.05 percent decrease in treatment costs. If there is less sediment in the water, then companies can save money on treatment and focus it instead on infrastructure upgrades and other projects. Potentially, those savings will be passed down to consumers through a lower water bill.
The list of businesses and sectors that benefit from a healthy Bay does not end here. Watermen buy fishing equipment, charter boats require service and tourists who visit the area spend their money in hotels, shops and restaurants. Restoring the Chesapeake Bay is good for the critters that live in its watershed, but it’s also good for us.
Does your work benefit from a healthy Bay? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by Will Parson and Steve Droter
Three Eastern hognose snakes exhibit mating behavior at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, on April 2, 2017. Native throughout most of the Chesapeake Bay region, the varied coloring of the Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) can make it difficult to identify, but the characteristic upturned scale at the tip of the snake’s nose is a foolproof indicator.
Despite their tendency to be confused for the venomous cottonmouth, Eastern hognose snakes almost never bite and are quite docile. In fact, only a few bites from the species have ever been documented, with many of them accidental: in one case, a snake’s tooth caught the victim’s arm while the snake was playing dead.
That type of bluffing behavior is another distinctive way to identify the Eastern hognose. Also called the “puff adder,” the snakes have a unique way of confronting predators. When approached, an Eastern hognose will suck in air and spread the skin around its head and neck to mimic a cobra’s hood. If that doesn’t work, the snake will play dead by rolling onto its back and opening its mouth, remaining limp for several minutes. If left undisturbed, it will eventually glance around for the predator, and if the coast is clear, turn right-side-up and wriggle away.
Although secretive and seldom seen, the number of Eastern hognose snakes is fairly stable; however, certain populations have shown declines in areas of high development. Places like Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and other protected lands can serve as a haven for these and other species. Jug Bay in particular is home to a multitude of species, including rare and uncommon species like bald eagles and least bitterns. Work by Chesapeake Bay Program partners to conserve undeveloped land—particularly the woodlands and coastal areas preferred by the Eastern hognose—can help protect not only these snakes, but countless other wildlife species.
Image by Will Parson
In a watershed whose population has expanded by more than eight million people in the last 50 years, protecting land while allowing urban and suburban growth can pose a challenge. But one piece of Maryland’s land protection puzzle has proven successful in protecting forests and, according to some, could provide guidance to other regions interested in keeping trees on land that is threatened by residential development.
The Maryland Forest Conservation Act was passed under Governor William Donald Schaefer in late 1991 and implemented at the local level by county and municipal governments in 1993. It was designed to reduce forest loss following development and is the only statewide forest conservation regulation in the nation to focus on forest retention and replanting during the construction permitting process.
The Act affects those who propose land use changes on properties of one acre and greater in size and that require a subdivision approval, grading permit or sediment control permit: for example, a homeowner who wants to add a new residence to his property or a developer who wants to build a subdivision. These landowners must work with a licensed forester, licensed landscape architect or other qualified professional to submit their plans to protect trees during construction and to mitigate construction by retaining a portion of existing forest cover or by planting new trees.
By its nature as a required rather than optional regulation, the Act affects and engages a wide swath of landowners in planting trees and protecting land. “We’re more restrictive here [in Maryland than in other states] on what happens [to land] during development. There are a lot of environmental laws at the local level and at the state level that you need in order to get your building permits. Other states aren’t that way,” said Marian Honeczy, Urban & Community Forestry Programs Manager with the Maryland Forest Service.
Some landowners have argued against planting new trees when their proposed developments don’t involve removing them. But as Honeczy explains, the Act was meant to engage everyone in the work of environmental conservation. “Governor Schaefer felt that everyone should bear the burden of protecting the Bay, since we’re all sharing the benefits. It didn’t matter if you had a forested site or a farm field [slated for development]. Everyone had to comply with the law.”
That said, not everyone bears the same burden. Different zoning categories have different afforestation and reforestation thresholds and different forest retention amounts. In other words, those developing a farm field may have to plant fewer trees than those developing a woodlot. “But you’re still planting trees,” Honeczy said.
Healthy forests are critical to a healthy Chesapeake Bay: they protect clean air and water and provide food and habitat to wildlife. (For this reason, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to expanding urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025.) And for Honeczy, the Forest Conservation Act has “more than accomplished” its intended goal of conserving forests in the face of development. Indeed, research suggests the regulation has had a significant and positive effect on Maryland’s forest cover, and the numbers seem to agree: In the first 20 years of the Forest Conservation Act, 110,701 acres of forest land were put under protection from development. That area is two and a half times bigger than Washington, D.C.!
The Act does face challenges—in the form of finite land and finite funding—but it was “never intended to be the sole answer for all of our forest cover and urban tree issues,” Honeczy said. Just as protecting forests was not intended to be a burden on the shoulders of one landowner, it was also not intended to be a burden on the shoulders of one law, one program or one state agency.
Whether it is through the Woodland Incentive Program—which provides cost-share assistance for tree planting and timber stand improvement on forests between five and 1,000 acres in size—the Lawn to Woodland program—which fully funds the conversion of one- to four-acre lawns to forests—or the Marylanders Plant Trees program—which provides coupons to homeowners who want to purchase trees to plant—the Maryland Forest Service and their partners across the state will continue to connect anyone who wants to plant a tree with people and programs that will help them do so.
“Trees do so much in a cheap, efficient way to protect the Bay,” Honeczy said. “And every person can plant a tree on their property.”