Last month, the final load of juvenile oysters was cast into Harris Creek’s 350-acre oyster reef, marking over two billion oysters planted in the sanctuary. One of the largest oyster restoration projects in the world, the reef in Harris Creek—a tributary of Maryland's Choptank River—is the first of ten Chesapeake Bay tributaries needed to fulfill the oyster restoration goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
The juvenile oysters, known as spat, all came from the University of Maryland's Horn Point Hatchery. Oyster restoration in Harris Creek has been a collaborative effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the Nature Conservancy and other groups, such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Scientists will continue to monitor the health of the Harris Creek oysters as they look toward restoring more tributaries of the Chesapeake.
We first documented Harris Creek in 2012, when roughly a quarter of the construction and seeding at Harris Creek was complete.
Text and images by Will Parson
Videos by Will Parson and Steve Droter
Across the Chesapeake Bay, strong waves crash into shorelines, pulling sand into the water and causing beaches to disappear. In recent decades, scientists have turned to living shorelines and stone reefs to slow this process—known as erosion—and create critical habitat for wildlife. On the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, one such project has proven successful on both counts.
The 2,285-acre island refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland, is part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex and has long offered feeding and resting grounds to songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. When a narrow piece of land at its southern point—the highest priority habitat at the refuge—proved in danger of washing away, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and several other partners came together to slow the disappearance of the shoreline.
In June, USFWS Biologist Dave Sutherland—along with staff from the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI) and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, both of which are partners in this effort— took our team to the refuge to see the living shoreline and underwater reefs that made it a model of climate resiliency. Five years after construction on these projects began, pieces of land do still break off of the island’s long peninsula that separates Hail Cove, Hail Creek and the Chester River. But the goal was never to stop erosion: it was to slow it down without using the manmade structures that block critters from reaching the beach.
While shoreline erosion is a natural process, sea-level rise has amplified the impacts of wind and wave energy across the watershed. “I look at sea-level rise as a human-induced issue that’s exacerbating what used to be a slower, natural process,” said USFWS Fisheries Biologist John Gill. “Not to say it wasn’t happening before. Just that its rate has increased. And it’s tougher for marshes to keep up.”
For Gill, the Hail Cove restoration project achieves “a nice balancing act” in its use of manmade infrastructure and the natural environment. The essential elements? Headland breakwaters, underwater reefs and a living shoreline. “You’re working with Mother Nature, but still providing erosion control,” Gill said.
Low headland breakwaters placed at each end of Hail Cove maintain the pocket beach, blocking wave energy that might otherwise destroy the shore. A long ribbon reef deemed the “arc of stone” stretches across the cove, offering further protection for the beach and vital habitat for fish, shellfish and invertebrates.
Hooked mussels colonized the ribbon reef soon after it was built, and eastern oysters that were planted there with volunteer help continue to thrive. Algae grow on the granite rocks, small fish live in the reef’s tiny crevices and waterfowl find a source of food on their migrations over the Bay. “A lot of species are habitat-starved, and this [arc of stone] provided a lot of what they need,” Sutherland said. “It’s well-populated with cobies and blennies and worms and macroalgae. It’s really a fantastic habitat.”
Sutherland and his team soon recognized the benefits of installing infrastructure that allowed access to the beach: three weeks after sand was put down, engineers discovered nine diamondback terrapin nests on the shore, proving just how “habitat-starved” these native turtles were.
The Hail Cove project was completed this spring when 11 patch reefs—using one acre of material in all—were laid down over the two and a half-acre cove. The reefs will expand the underwater habitat that is so important to so many critters but has been lost with the decline of the Bay’s native oyster. For Sutherland, these reefs were “the icing on the cake. If the arc of stone is good, the patch reefs are going to be even better,” he said.
DNR Fisheries Biologist and MARI Coordinator Erik Zlokovitz echoed Sutherland’s satisfaction with the project. “This is a multipurpose shallow-water reef system. It’s not just an oyster reef or a fish reef. It’s a multipurpose reef for mussels, oysters and other invertebrates, which provide forage for fish and waterfowl,” he said.
The reef has also attracted recreational anglers to the area, who fish from kayaks and small boats for white perch and striped bass. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, whose members are recreational fishermen, was a strong supporter of the Hail Cove project. For Sutherland, the cove’s restoration wouldn’t have been a success without the “great partners” that made it possible.
“Living shoreline science is really in its infancy, and every project is an experiment,” Sutherland said. But bringing partners together to strike a balance between manmade infrastructure and natural processes allowed this project to work, and Hail Cove now serves as “a starting point for reef construction in the Chester River,” said Sutherland. Indeed, relief funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery will soon finance further shoreline protection in the same area of the refuge.
“This project is a testament, to a certain extent, that if you build it, they will come,” Sutherland said. “We got to Hail Cove in the nick of time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Alexander Jonesi and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
More than 100,000 tons of fossilized oyster shell will be shipped from the Gulf Coast to Baltimore on CSX Corporation trains, thanks to a new partnership between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Jacksonville, Fla., transportation company.
Image courtesy James Butler/Flickr
The shell will be used to restore reefs in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank River, both of which flow into the Choptank on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The waterways are the first two sites of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-led strategy meant to restore oysters to 20 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025.
The 377-acre Harris Creek site was chosen because its water quality, salinity and protected status point to a high likelihood of restoration success. While granite will be used to build some of Harris Creek’s reefs, shell is the best material for oyster larvae to settle on, and a lack of natural shell in the region posed a restoration roadblock. The state met the challenge by spending $6.3 million on shell from Gulf Coast Aggregates.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) helped negotiate the state’s agreement with CSX, which will transport 50 train cars filled with Gulf Coast shell at cost to Curtis Bay two to three times each month over the next nine months. The shell will then be transported by barge to the Eastern Shore sanctuaries.
“This collaboration is monumental, as it allows us to complete the substrate construction of the largest tributary-focused oyster reef restoration project on the East Coast,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), in a media release. ORP will help build the oyster reefs, seed them with baby oysters and monitor planting success. “In all, more shell will be placed in Maryland waters over the next nine months than in the past decade—enough to cover 80 football fields with shell 12 inches deep.”
Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations. But the bivalves play a critical role in the Bay’s environment and the region’s economy, filtering water and feeding countless area residents.
Restoration partners across Maryland have set a national record: for the first time, an oyster hatchery has produced more than one billion spat in a single season.
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
The Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery is the largest hatchery on the East Coast and raises spat, or oyster larvae, for use in research, restoration, education and aquaculture. The lab produced 634 million spat last year, but a boost in spat production is a critical step in Maryland’s plan to expand oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay.
Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations. But the bivalves play a critical role in the Bay’s environment and the region’s economy, filtering water, forming aquatic reef habitat and feeding countless watershed residents.
According to a media release from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), 60 percent of the spat produced this season went into Harris Creek. The Choptank River tributary was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010, and is the first target of the tributary-based oyster restoration strategy set forth by Chesapeake Bay Program partners. As of this month, half of the reef construction and seed planting in the creek is complete.
The rest of the season’s spat went toward local conservation efforts, a citizen oyster growing program and aquaculture businesses and training programs.
An online mapping tool is now available to help resource managers and restoration partners rebuild oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.
Released this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Oyster Decision Support Tool displays a range of information relevant to oyster restoration, from historic reef boundaries and maps of the seafloor to the rate of oyster disease, death and spatfall on bars in Maryland waters.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But by filtering water, forming aquatic reefs and feeding countless watershed residents, the bivalves are an essential part of the Bay’s environment and economy.
But a new report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) indicates that reef restoration could be more effective if paired with stronger harvest limits.
“Oysters should be able to come back if we help them out by reducing fishing pressure and improving their habitat,” said Michael Wilberg, Associate Professor at the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, in a news release.
Dredging and tonging for oysters can damage reefs, pushing oysters onto unsuitable soft-bottom habitat or making them more vulnerable to suffocating sediment. According to the Wilberg-led study, if oysters were allowed to reproduce naturally and fishing were halted, it would take just 50 to 100 years for oyster abundance to reach as high a level as the Bay could support.
Learn more about the oyster population study.
Harris Creek is a tributary of the Choptank River. Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the waterway has been thrust into the spotlight as the first target of the oyster restoration goals set forth in the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order: to restore oyster populations in 20 Bay tributaries by 2025. Existing reefs will be studied, bars will be built, larvae will be raised and spat-on-shell will be planted in this federally mandated attempt to boost populations of the native bivalve.
Already home to productive and protected oyster reefs, Harris Creek’s good water quality and moderate salinity should allow for high rates of reproduction and low rates of disease—both critical factors in ensuring oyster survival. Indeed, natural “spat set,” or the settling of wild oysters on reefs, was observed in Harris Creek last year, and continued natural spat set could reduce the number of hatchery-raised oysters that are needed to complete the restoration plan.
Over the past two centuries, oyster populations across the Bay have experienced a dramatic decline. Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll, and populations now stand at less than one percent of historic levels. But as filters of water and builders of reef habitat, oysters are critical to the health of the Bay.
As of December 2012, reef construction and seeding for more than a quarter of Harris Creek’s 377 targeted acres were complete, and partners project that more than half of the construction and seeding for the rest of the creek’s reefs will be complete by the fall of 2013.
But it will take a lot for a reef and a tributary to be deemed “restored.” Partners will look not just for the presence of oysters, but for the expansion of oyster populations in the years following restoration efforts. The goal is an ambitious one, but many believe the Harris Creek project will serve as a model for the restoration of other tributaries in support of the Executive Order goal.
Video produced by Steve Droter.
On private piers up and down Harris Creek, hundreds of metal cages hang from ropes into blue-green water. Inside each cage are countless little oysters, which will grow here, safe from predators and sediment, during their first nine months of life. Once the spat are large enough, they will be pulled out of their short-term shelters and put onto boats to be replanted on protected reefs just a few short miles away.
The cages—along with the bivalves inside them—are cared for by volunteers with the Tilghman Islanders Grow Oysters (TIGO) program, itself a local branch of the Marylanders Grow Oysters program that is managed by the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC).
Now in its second season, TIGO has recruited more than 80 volunteers across the so-called “Bay Hundred” region—from Bozman and Neavitt to Wittman and Tilghman Island—to further oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline, as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But programs like this one give hatchery-grown oysters a head start before they are put into the Bay to replenish critical underwater reefs.
The TIGO program has attracted a wide range of restoration enthusiasts, from the middle-school student who has tracked her oysters’ growth for a science fair project to the neighbors who have competed against each other to grow more and bigger oysters. The main draw? What little effort is involved.
“Growing oysters is an effort, but it’s a really easy effort,” said TIGO coordinator Carol McCollough. “And we remove as many of the roadblocks as we possibly can for people who want to do this.”
Aside from a promise to keep cages free of excess sand and silt, the program doesn’t ask too much of its volunteers—and this has worked to its advantage.
H. Truitt Sunderland is a Wittman resident whose cages are filling up fast after six months of growth. The oysters have gone from mere millimeters to one and two inches in size, and a host of other critters—like grass shrimp and gobies, mud crabs and skillet fish—have taken up residence on this makeshift reef just as they would do on oyster bars in the Bay.
Sunderland’s home sits on Cummings Creek, and Sunderland has used the ease of the work involved—“I don’t even know how they can call this volunteer work,” he laughed—to involve his neighbors. Now, there are 24 cages on 12 piers in this single stretch of water.
Tilghman Island resident and fellow volunteer Steve Bender has had a similar experience. “The process is simple,” Bender said, standing on a wooden pier that juts into Blackwalnut Cove. “It’s not that demanding. It’s not that difficult to care for [the oysters].” And in response to his encouragement, Bender’s neighbors have been “glad” to join.
While projects like this one are a small drop in the restoration bucket, McCullough hopes that TIGO can cast a personal light on conservation for all those who are involved.
“We [at PWEC] inform, inspire and involve,” McCullough said. “We’re all about getting people to commit to [changes in] behaviors. It’s very easy to give money. It’s less easy to write letters. And I think in many ways, it’s even less easy to do something personal—to do restoration work on your own.”
But for McCullough, it’s possible that the simple act of caring for a cage of oysters could act as a stepping stone toward further involvement in the Bay.
“Oysters have become very exciting to people,” McCullough said. “They recognize that every single additional oyster in the Bay is a positive thing. That oyster restoration is something that’s bigger than they are.”
For more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Photos by Multimedia Coordinator Steve Droter.
On a winter morning in Annapolis, Md., a snow-covered truck pulls into the parking lot of a local seafood restaurant. A man in white boots and rubber gloves steps out of the cab, a metal door swings open behind the building and plastic trash cans full of oyster shells are exchanged between restaurant chef and shell recycler.
The trade is just one stop on a route that connects the 130 members of the Shell Recycling Alliance: a group of restaurants, caterers and seafood wholesalers that save their unneeded shells—some in five-gallon buckets, some in 14-gallon trash cans, some in 55-gallon wheeled bins—for pick up by Tommy Price.
Price is a Special Programs Specialist with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a conservation group that has for two decades worked to restore oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. As a driver in the partnership’s fleet of trucks—which are complete with shell recycling logos and oyster-themed license plates—Price has watched the Shell Recycling Alliance grow, generating more than 1,000 tons of shell that are an integral piece in the oyster restoration puzzle.
Sent to an environmental research lab and oyster hatchery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the shells are cured, power-washed and put to work as settling material for the billions of oyster larvae that are planted to replenish reefs across the Bay.
Over the past two centuries, native oyster populations have experienced a dramatic decline as habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have taken their toll. But by filtering water, forming aquatic reefs and feeding countless watershed residents, the bivalves have become an essential part of the Bay’s environment and economy.
It is this link between businesses and the Bay that inspired Boatyard Bar and Grill to sign on to the Shell Recycling Alliance.
“The Bay is a huge economic engine for this area,” said restaurant owner Dick Franyo. “Look at what we do here—it’s all about fishing, sailing, ‘Save the Bay.’ It’s where we come from. It’s what we think about.”
Franyo, who sits on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s board of trustees, has upheld a conservation ethic in much of what his restaurant does. It donates at least one percent of its annual revenue to environmental organizations; it composts all of its food waste; it recycles oyster shells alongside glass, metal and plastic; and it spreads the word about the restoration efforts that still need to be made.
All Shell Recycling Alliance members are given brochures, table tents and “Zagat”-style window stickers to use as tools of engagement, teaching customers and clientele about the importance of saving shell.
“Shell is a vital ingredient in oyster restoration,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “It’s like flour in bread.”
Indeed, it has become such a valuable resource that a bill has been proposed that would give individuals and businesses a $1 tax credit for each bushel of shell recycled.
“The Bay, restoration and oysters—it’s all one story,” Abel said. And without oyster shells, the story would be incomplete.
Restoration partners in Maryland have put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen.
While habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, the peculiar bivalves that filter water, form aquatic reefs and feed countless watershed residents are critical to the Bay’s environment and economy.
According to a report from the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a portion of the 634 million oyster larvae that partners planted in 2012 went into the Upper Bay, where last year an influx of fresh water from spring rains and late-summer storms led to widespread oyster death.
But most of the “spat on shell”—or young oysters “set” onto large oyster shells—went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. There, partners hope to restore 360 acres of oyster reef, constructing new reefs and seeding this habitat with spat; close to one-third of this goal has been planted so far.
To fuel restoration efforts, the Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery produced a record-breaking 880 million spat in 2012, marking the fifth year in a row that spat production has exceeded half a billion. The largest hatchery on the (east coast), the Cambridge, Md., lab produces disease-free oyster larvae for use in research, restoration, education and aquaculture.
Horn Point Laboratory will host an open house on Saturday, October 13.
This is the fourth year the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s oyster hatchery has produced more than 500 million disease-free baby oysters, called spat. The Oyster Recovery Partnership works with the university, as well as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other partners to collect and plant oysters in the Bay and its rivers.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership also processed more than 70,000 bushels of oyster shell in 2011. About 10,000 bushels were collected through the Shell Recycling Alliance, a program that takes used oyster shells from more than 100 restaurants, caterers and seafood distributors in the region. Baby oysters must attach themselves to other oysters to grow and survive, so it’s critical to collect as many used oyster shells as possible to reuse in oyster reef restoration efforts. The Shell Recycling Alliance now provides 15 percent of the oyster shells Maryland needs for its restoration efforts.
Visit the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s website to learn more about the group’s oyster restoration efforts.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have placed 306 reef balls planted with millions of baby oysters in the Choptank River near Cooks Point.
Reef balls are three-dimensional structures that provide habitat for oysters and other aquatic organisms, including worms, mussels, striped bass and black sea bass. Reef ball plantings help restore oyster populations and promote thriving aquatic reef communities. Many reef-dependent species have not been seen in the Choptank River for many years.
Visit Maryland DNR’s website to learn more about the agency’s artificial reef initiative.
There are several different kinds of habitats found in the Bay’s watershed. Each one is important to the survival of the watershed’s diverse wildlife. Habitats also play important roles in Bay restoration.
Chesapeake Bay habitats include:
Forests covered approximately 95 percent of the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed when Europeans arrived in the 17th century. Now, forests only cover about 58 percent of the watershed.
Forests are important because they provide vital habitat for wildlife. Forests also filter pollution, keeping nearby waterways cleaner. Forests act as huge natural sponges that absorb and slowly release excess stormwater runoff, which often contains harmful pollutants. Forests also absorb airborne nitrogen that might otherwise pollute our land and water.
Wetlands are transitional areas between land and water. There are two general categories of wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: tidal and non-tidal. Tidal wetlands, found along the Bay's shores, are filled with salt or brackish water when the tide rises. Non-tidal wetlands contain fresh water
Just like forests, wetlands act as important buffers, absorbing and slowing the flow of polluted runoff to the Bay and its tributaries.
Streams and rivers not only provide the Chesapeake Bay with its fresh water, they also provide many aquatic species with critical habitat. Fish, invertebrates, amphibians and other wildlife species all depend on the Bay’s tributaries for survival.
When the Bay’s streams and rivers are in poor health, so is the Bay, and the great array of wildlife it harbors is put in danger.
Shallow waters are the areas of water from the shoreline to about 10 feet deep. Shallow waters are constantly changing with the tides and weather throughout the year. The shallows support plant life, fish, birds and shellfish.
Tidal marshes in the Bay's shallows connect shorelines to forests and wetlands. Marshes and provide food and shelter for the wildlife that lives in the Bay's shallow waters. Freshwater marshes are found in the upper Bay, brackish marshes in the middle Bay and salt marshes in the lower Bay.
Aquatic reefs are solid three-dimensional habitats made up of densely packed oysters. The reefs form when oyster larvae attach to larger oysters at the bottom of the Bay.
Reefs provide habitat and communities for many aquatic species in the Bay, including fish and crabs. The high concentration of oysters in aquatic reefs improve water quality by filtering algae and pollutants from the water.
Open waters are beyond the shoreline and the shallows. Aquatic reefs replace underwater bay grasses, which cannot grow where the sunlight cannot penetrate deep waters. Open water provides vital habitat for pelagic fish, birds and invertebrates.
Each of these habitats are vital to the survival of the Chesapeake Bay’s many different species of wildlife. It's important to protect and restore habitats to help promote the overall health of the Bay. So do your part to save the Bay by protecting habitats near you – find out how.
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Maryland's Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) recently submitted an interim report to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Maryland General Assembly and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin concerning the state's oyster management program.
Using the latest scientific information available, the OAC reached consensus on a “possible vision for what a healthy oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay might look like and what functions it would serve in the 21st century.”
With Bay oyster populations at a mere 1 percent of their historic levels, the OAC offered findings that are intended to provide direction to help restore the Bay's most important bivalve. These findings include:
The OAC is comprised of 21 scientists, watermen, anglers, businessmen, economists, environmental advocates and elected officials. The commission's sole purpose is to advise the state of Maryland on matters relating to oysters and strategies for rebuilding and managing the oyster population in Maryland 's portion of the Bay.