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
Watershed jurisdictions could get pollution-reduction credit for their oyster aquaculture industries after the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Water Quality Goal Implementation Team approved findings put together by the Oyster BMP Expert Panel. This panel, coordinated by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, is made up of oyster scientists and practitioners, and includes representatives from academic institutions, non-profit organizations and county, state and federal agencies.
Oyster aquaculture, sometimes called oyster farming, is when individuals or companies grow oysters on leased plots of land instead of harvesting them from public reefs. The panel’s report specifies how three forms of oyster aquaculture could help reduce pollution and recommends their designation as best management practices (BMPs), or practices that reduce or prevent nutrients and sediment from entering the Chesapeake Bay.
As filter feeders, oysters pump water through their gills, trapping particles of food as well as nutrients and sediment. Some of the sediment gets deposited on the water bottom, while nitrogen and phosphorous becomes assimilated into oysters’ tissue and shells. Oyster waste can also be buried, further reducing the amount of nutrients in the water.
The protocols approved in the report will become available to state and local governments as options to implement or promote—the same way that establishing forest buffers or planting cover crops are. The Chesapeake Bay Program partnership is now developing procedures for the implementation and verification of the new BMP.
While the panel’s recommendations apply only to private oyster aquaculture, experts will continue to look into options for public reefs and oyster sanctuaries, as well as other ways oysters could reduce pollution, and will publish their findings and recommendations in future reports.
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.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Raising oysters along the bed of the Potomac River could lower pollution and improve water quality, according to new findings that show “farm-raised” shellfish are a promising method of managing nutrients.
Image courtesy Robert Rheault/Flickr
Nutrient pollution from urban, suburban and agricultural runoff has long plagued the Potomac, whose watershed spans four states and the District of Columbia and has the highest population in the Chesapeake Bay region. Excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. While filter-feeding oysters were once plentiful in the river—capable of removing nutrients from the water—their numbers have dropped due to overfishing and disease.
In a report published in Aquatic Geochemistry, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) show that cultivating shellfish on 40 percent of the Potomac’s bottom would remove all of the nitrogen now polluting the river. While conflicting uses—think shipping lanes, buried cables and pushback from boaters and landowners—mean it is unlikely that such a large area would be devoted to aquaculture, putting even 15 to 20 percent of the riverbed under cultivation would remove almost half of the incoming nitrogen. The combination of aquaculture and restored reefs could provide even greater benefits.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr
Shellfish aquaculture could also have benefits outside the realm of water quality: the shellfish could serve as a marketable seafood product, while the practice could provide growers with additional income if accepted in a nutrient trading program. Even so, the report notes that aquaculture should be considered “a complement—not a substitute” for land-based pollution-reducing measures.
“The most expedient way to reduce eutrophication in the Potomac River estuary would be to continue reducing land-based nutrients complemented by a combination of aquaculture and restored oyster reefs,” said scientist and lead study author Suzanne Bricker in a media release. “The resulting combination could provide significant removal of nutrients… and offer innovative solutions to long-term persistent water quality problems.”
At present, there are no aquaculture leases in the Potomac’s main stem. But in 2008, Maryland passed a plan to expand aquaculture in the region, and in 2009, NOAA launched an initiative to promote aquaculture in coastal waters across the United States.