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Chesapeake Bay News

Jun
16
2016

Not your grandfather’s oyster company

Chief Farm Officer Patrick Oliver, right, and crew member Josh Dusci spread quarter-sized juvenile oysters into cages to be placed in the Rappahannock River in Topping, Va., on May 9, 2016. Rappahannock Oyster Company is a century-old business that has switched to aquaculture in recent years to yield a more sustainable harvest.

For centuries, Chesapeake Bay residents and visitors alike have enjoyed the many benefits oysters have brought them. They’re a source of income for the watermen who harvest them, joy for the people who eat them and, for everyone else, they’re the bottom-dwellers that help filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay. But decades of overharvesting have depleted oyster stock to the point where current populations are less than one percent of historic levels. To reconcile a high demand with desperately low numbers, many in the oyster business are turning to aquaculture, or underwater farming, for solutions.

Rappahannock Oyster Company was once an oyster farm like many others; buying wild spat (baby oysters), laying them underwater on leased plots for three years and then dredging them back up. But when cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton took over their grandfather’s business in 2001, they saw a chance to revitalize the company and shake up how they farmed oysters. They began trying new approaches, such as buying seeds from a hatchery instead of spat taken from the Bay, and putting them into cages instead of directly on the river bottom.

And they didn’t just change the way they farmed oysters—they also changed how they did business. A tasting room at their farm in Topping, Virginia, and oyster bars in Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C., serve the dual purpose of bringing oysters to consumers and educating them about farm-grown oysters. Chief Operating Officer Anthony Marchetti explains that their process is more sustainable; instead of further depleting the Bay’s oyster stock, “every oyster we put in the water is one that wasn’t there before.”

Through their method of oyster farming, Rappahannock Oyster Company hopes to get their oysters to hungry customers without impacting the long-term health of the Bay. One of their goals, Marchetti says, is to take the pressure off the wild stock of oysters, to someday get back to levels where they could be harvested—with smart management—without worrying about their or the Bay’s viability.

Oyster farming is becoming the norm in Virginia. They are the most rapidly developing sector of Virginia shellfish aquaculture, and the state is number one in oyster production on the East Coast. Newcomers to the field aren’t interested in further depleting the wild populations, says Marchetti. They’re opting for aquaculture, he says, because “you reap what you sow.”

Crew members retrieve cages of mature oysters from the Rappahannock River at sunrise.

LEFT: A cage of oysters is sprayed with water just after harvest. RIGHT: A young blue crab escapes one of the oyster cages, which can provide habitat for reef species.

Workers sorting oysters keep up with a machine that automates some of the processing.

Grow-out Manager Michael Robertson helps grade oysters. Oysters that are too small for market are set aside to be returned to the water.

Crew member Richard Burlingame empties cages near a conveyor.

Burlingame shovels oysters into a bin feeding the conveyor.

After the conveyer, oysters are cleaned by spray nozzles inside a tumbler.

LEFT: Crew member Cal Smith empties a basket into a sack for delivery. RIGHT: As the oysters are sacked, they are stacked and kept cool with ice.

LEFT: Expert oyster shucker Pete Woods serves up oysters on the half shell at Rappahannock Oyster Company's tasting room, Merroir, just a few footsteps from the rest of the company's aquaculture operation. RIGHT: Merroir offers outdoor guests a view of the Rappahannock River.

Burlingame shakes an oyster cage once against the side of the boat before it is lowered into the water. It usually takes about 18 months in the cages for oysters to reach the right size.

Oliver holds juvenile oysters, known as spat, which Rappahannock Oyster Company gets from Oyster Seed Holdings, a commercial hatchery in Mathews County, Va. A paddle wheel upweller keeps river water flowing over the tiny oysters, providing them with a steady meal of plankton. "They're feeding on what's in the water naturally," Oliver said.

A worker leaves his mark next to a cage to be planted.

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.

 

Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff

Joan Smedinghoff's avatar
About Joan Smedinghoff - Joan is the Communications Office Staffer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. Originally from Chicago, she was introduced to the Chesapeake Bay region through the streams of central Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelor's in Environmental Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she first discovered her passion for storytelling.



Jun
14
2016

Wastewater sector meets nutrient goals of ‘pollution diet’ a decade early

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), upgrades in wastewater treatment over the last twenty years have significantly lowered the amount of nutrient pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay, effectively meeting the sector’s 2025 goals under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, a decade early.

The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant is operated by DC Water in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, 2013. Blue Plains is the largest advanced wastewater treatment plant in the world.

Since 1985, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from wastewater in the Bay watershed have decreased by 57 percent and 75 percent, respectively—this despite an increase in both population and the volume of wastewater to be treated. Thirty years ago, wastewater accounted for 28 percent of nitrogen pollution and 39 percent of phosphorus pollution; the sector now accounts for just 16 percent of the overall loads of each pollutant.

DC Water CEO and General Manager George Hawkins describes Blue Plains' effectiveness in treating wastewater in a press conference at the plant on Tuesday.

“The wastewater sector is leading the way at this point in our efforts to restore the Bay and local waters,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin in a release.  “While we’ve reached a critical milestone in reducing pollution from wastewater plants, we need to keep up the momentum and ensure that other sectors do their share.” Garvin and other officials announced the news Tuesday at Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes portions of six states and D.C., is home to 472 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants. Over the last 30 years, improvements at the ten largest of these treatment plants have prevented 240 million pounds of nitrogen and 48 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into the Bay.

Learn more.



Jun
13
2016

Slightly smaller-than-average dead zone predicted for Chesapeake Bay

Scientists expect low river flow and reduced nutrient-rich runoff from the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers this spring to result in an average to slightly smaller-than-average dead zone in the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay this summer.

When nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose, they result in areas of little to no oxygen, known as dead zones.

Aquatic life—from blue crabs to underwater grasses—relies on dissolved oxygen to survive. When nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose, the resulting areas of little to no oxygen, known as dead zones, can suffocate underwater plants and animals. The latest forecast predicts a mid-summer hypoxic, or low-oxygen, zone of 1.58 cubic miles: close to the long-term average. The anoxic, or no-oxygen, zone is expected to reach 0.28 cubic miles in early summer and grow to 0.31 cubic miles by late-summer.

This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan and relies on estimated nutrient loads from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). According to USGS, 66.2 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Chesapeake Bay in from January to May 2016, which is 17 percent lower than average nitrogen loadings.

Over the next few months, researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will monitor oxygen levels in the Bay, resulting in a final measurement of the Bay’s dead zone later this year.

Learn more about the dead zone size prediction, or learn about how scientists measure oxygen in the Bay.



Jun
13
2016

‘Sneaker index’ of 31 inches measured at Bernie Fowler Wade-In

Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 31 inches of water at the 29th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 12. High winds and rough waters meant this year’s “sneaker index”—the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his shoes as he wades into the water—measured far lower than 2015’s 44.5 inches.

Bernie Fowler, a former Maryland state senator and long-time advocate for a healthy Patuxent River, leads last year's 28th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 14, 2015.

Since 1988, the now 92-year-old Fowler—clad in his signature white sneakers—has held the wade-in on the second Sunday in June, to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. The event moved to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2010 after decades on Broomes Island.

In his youth, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But nutrient and sediment pollution in the river have led to degraded water clarity and fueled algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the river bottom. The 1960s sneaker index of 57 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River.



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