Researchers studying historic pollution levels in the Chesapeake Bay found their answers in a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary subject: oyster shells. A recent study from the University of Alabama looked at nutrient levels in Bay oyster shells dating back over three thousand years, finding that humans have been polluting the Chesapeake Bay since the early 19th century.
Because they live stationary lives, oysters can make useful study subjects, serving as snapshots of environmental conditions in one location. As filter feeders—they eat by pumping water through their gills—the bivalves remove nutrients from the water, absorbing much of it into their shells. This study was one of the first to use oyster shells, commonly found at archaeological sites in the region, to backdate nitrogen levels. Using that data, researchers could determine when nitrogen levels increased and what role humans may have played.
Studying oyster shells dating back to 1250 BC, researchers found a dramatic increase in nitrogen content that began in the early 1800s and increased almost exponentially until present day. That timeline corresponds what is known about human activities in the Chesapeake Bay region at that time: dramatic increases in population, agriculture and forest clearing. While American Indians altered their environment and contributed to higher nitrogen levels in the water, the effects were local. Beginning in the 17th century, an influx of European colonizers led to an increase in agriculture and forest clearing— but it wasn’t until the 19th century that human effects began to dramatically alter nitrogen levels in oysters.
Industrialization and population increases in the 1800s left their mark on the Chesapeake Bay. Between 1830 and 1880, the area’s population tripled. As a result, over 80 percent of forests surrounding the Bay were cleared for farming and development. Plowing and erosion increased the amount of sewage and sediment entering the water, increasing nitrogen levels in the water as well. Oyster populations also declined, thus limiting the ability of the Bay to filter out this influx of pollution.
While this research focused on historical nitrogen levels, nutrient pollution is still a problem in the Chesapeake Bay today. Nitrogen is necessary for plants and animals to survive, but too much of it can lead to algal blooms, which create harmful conditions for underwater life. Manure and fertilizers can wash off of agricultural fields into nearby waterways, and stormwater runoff can pick up nutrients from excess lawn and garden fertilizers, pet waste and other sources in urban areas. Chesapeake Bay Program partners work with states, local governments, farmers, businesses and many more stakeholders to implement practices that can reduce and even eliminate pollution entering waterways.
The study, “δ15N Values in Crassostrea virginica Shells Provides Early Direct Evidence for Nitrogen Loading to Chesapeake Bay,” is available online in Scientific Reports.
Oyster restoration efforts in both Maryland and Virginia have seen significant gains in the past year, according to reports released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office and the Chesapeake Bay Program. The 2016 Maryland and Virginia Oyster Restoration Updates outline progress made in the two states to restore oyster reefs in ten Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
For more than a century, oysters have made up one of the region’s most valuable commercial fisheries. But harvest pressure, disease and habitat loss have led to a severe drop in oyster populations, leaving the bivalves at less than one percent of their historic levels. As part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners committed to restoring native oyster habitat and populations to ten tributaries by 2025.
Currently, six Bay tributaries have been selected for oyster restoration: three each in Maryland and Virginia. The Oyster Restoration Updates released today describe work accomplished thus far in a process that involves developing a restoration plan, constructing and seeding reefs, and monitoring and evaluating restored reefs.
In Maryland, nearly 800 million oyster seed have been planted in Harris Creek, the Little Choptank and the Tred Avon River. Significant monitoring is underway both at and near the restoration sites, including detailed monitoring to track the sites’ health and research to quantify the benefits of restored oyster reefs. The Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission is discussing naming the next two Maryland tributaries to be selected for oyster restoration projects.
In Virginia, work is underway in the Lafayette, Piankatank and Lynnhaven Rivers. In the Lafayette, 70.5 acres of oyster reefs are functioning at a restored level, leaving less than 10 acres remaining to reach the restoration target. In the Piankatank and Lynnhaven, 25 acres and 63 acres of oyster reefs have been constructed, respectively, and experts are working to set specific restoration acreage goals. The Greater Wicomoco and lower York rivers have been preliminarily selected as the next two Virginia tributaries to be targeted for oyster restoration.
“These updates highlight progress made by Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration partners toward the goal of restoring oysters in 10 tributaries by 2025,” said Peyton Robertson, Director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and Chair of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team. “The collective impact of efforts by agencies, nonprofits and academic partners in Maryland and Virginia—including science, planning, implementation and monitoring—is significant.”
Funding for these oyster restoration projects comes from federal, state and local governments as well as nonprofit partners, all working to support goals of the Chesapeake Bay Program. To track progress toward the work to restore oysters to ten Bay tributaries, visit ChesapeakeProgress.
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
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.
The Elizabeth River Project stored roughly 1,000 cubic yards, or about 30 truckloads, of shucked oyster shell in Chesapeake, Virginia. Now, these shells are part of a 1-acre oyster reef located in the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, in a project funded by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.
The Eastern Branch oyster reef was constructed in two layers. On the bottom is a layer of crushed concrete, recycled from nearby buildings that were knocked down, followed by a layer of shells sourced from shucking houses in North Carolina. The Elizabeth River Project completed building its acre-sized oyster reef in June, but has a much larger goal of restoring 10 acres of native oysters by the year 2024. Using a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association survey of the Eastern Branch, the Elizabeth River Project identified an additional eight acres for restoration and is now working on getting funding to continue their restoration work.
Along with creating the oyster reef, the Elizabeth River Project has also been busy building oyster “castles” along the branch’s shoreline. Oyster castles are stacks of concrete blocks that create suitable habitat for first-generation oysters. The height allows for oysters to attach without sinking into the mud, and since oysters prefer to attach to areas that already have oyster shells, the blocks typically contain about 30 percent shell.
The restoration projects in the Eastern Branch would not be possible without local partnerships, says Deputy Director of Restoration Joe Rieger. The Elizabeth River Project partnered with organizations such as Kinder Morgen to store and stockpile oyster shells, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District to turn waste concrete into oyster blocks and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to eventually seed the area with baby oysters.
Image by Will Parson
Oysters are simple creatures; they have no centralized nervous system and take in nutrients passively through water filtration. Their impacts on the Chesapeake Bay, however, are multi-faceted and far-reaching. They have cultural, economic and biological significance that goes far beyond their humble station as filter-feeders. The Edgewater, Maryland-based South River Federation and John Flood, one of its founders, understand that restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary, the South River, means oysters need to have a fighting chance and some good real estate.
Throughout an oyster’s lifetime—which ranges from several years to twenty years in captivity—it will filter about 50 gallons of water a day, every day. If one oyster lived for four years, it could filter 73 thousand gallons of water, effectively removing contaminants and algae in its pursuit of nutrients. Multiply that by the thousands of oysters on a sanctuary reef and you’ve got some serious and sustainable filtration power to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers.
One of the hurdles facing oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay is how vulnerable the oysters are in their first year of life. If the baby oysters, or spat, are simply dumped into the water and left they can contract disease, become food or succumb to nutrient pollution. To combat this, John Flood began growing oysters in repurposed paint buckets. The buckets hang suspended in the water off of docks for their first year, then Flood and volunteers load up his small fishing boat or the Federation’s Carolina Skiff with adolescent oysters and takes them to a sanctuary reef where harvesting is prohibited.
These “Flood buckets” don’t need much until they are ready to be transferred to a sanctuary reef. Growers need to make sure the oysters remain submerged but off the bottom and clean them off every couple of weeks to prevent too much algae from collecting on the cages and restricting circulation. At the end of the year, they take their briny charges to join a sanctuary reef where they will hopefully live out their lives performing their simple function of siphoning nutrients from the current.
On September 23, 2016, volunteers from Price Waterhouse Cooper went through the labor intensive, muddy but important work of emptying the almost 200 buckets hanging from a private marina dock in Flood’s waterfront Annapolis neighborhood. Busy dislodging oysters from their first homes with a combination of sledge hammers and vigorous shaking, they were careful to allow the fish, eels and crabs that made their home in the buckets to evacuate. Once free, the oysters were ferried to their new homes on the South River sanctuary reef.
Flood is the “godfather of citizens growing oysters,” according to Nancy Merrill, Volunteer and Outreach Program Coordinator for the South River Federation. He’s also a salty guy with a lot of intensity. Concerned about poaching on the sanctuary reefs, Flood and Merrill don’t like to share the exact location. “If we showed it to you we’d have to kill you,” Flood joked with volunteers.
Flood felt a great sense of loss when he saw the dismal state of the South River: dead underwater grass beds, chemical contamination and major oyster reef degradation. This was the river he spent his childhood fishing and swimming in, and that long-standing connection called him to action. “I watched it collapse from nutrient pollution when I was a boy,” he said, adding later, “I lost something that was too valuable not to fight to get it back.” By helping to found the South River Federation in 2000, he hopes to aid in bringing back underwater grass beds and oysters, thereby improving the river and the Chesapeake Bay for future generations.
There are close to 70 oyster growers working directly with the South River Federation, who partners with Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Marylanders Grow Oysters Program. Through the state’s program that works with local groups, 1,500 waterfront property owners on 30 Bay tributaries are growing millions of young oysters for sanctuary reefs.
“The lonely oyster, to me, is the symbol of recovery,” Flood said. “And if we would let it work, respect its simple function in the Bay, harvest it sustainably and realize its importance as a keystone species then we can understand the Bay better and be better stewards.”
Text, images and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Richard Burlingame hoses down cages of oysters pulled from the Rappahannock River at Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping, Virginia. Like many others in Virginia, the company has turned to aquaculture—oyster farming—in recent years to yield a more sustainable harvest.
An oft-repeated piece of advice about oysters is to only eat them in months containing the letter “R”: September, October, November and so on. But this adage became popular before commercial harvesting and oyster aquaculture were widespread. Warm weather brings along a variety of conditions that can make oysters less-than-appetizing: the bivalve’s natural lifecycle leads to a soft, flimsy oyster in the summer months; bacteria and harmful algae are more likely to be present and absorbed by the oysters; and it simply isn’t safe to eat shellfish that have been sitting out in hot weather, which was a concern in the days before refrigeration.
These days, oyster farming, water-quality monitoring and strict food safety practices have made it safe to eat raw oysters year-round. Many vendors use sterile breeds or import shellfish from cooler climates to avoid the thin, milky meat of spawning oysters. Monitoring bacteria and pollution at every step of the farming and harvesting process ensures that only oysters from clean waters make it onto your plate. And strict food safety regulations mean the shellfish are refrigerated from the moment they leave the water to when they’re sold to consumers.
Still, aficionados know the flavor of oysters can vary based on when and where they’re harvested. But you can rest easy knowing they’re safe to eat no matter the month.
Image by Will Parson
Oyster populations throughout Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay have generally improved over the past decade, according to a report from the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But while oysters within state-designated sanctuaries have continued to thrive in recent years, populations in areas open to harvest have declined.
Three types of oyster management areas are designated in Maryland: active aquaculture, or oyster farming; sanctuaries, where harvesting is not allowed; and Public Shellfish Fishery Areas, or PSFAs, which are open to public harvesting.
Low disease mortality combined with successful reproductive seasons in 2010 and 2012 helped boost populations of the Bay’s iconic bivalve in both fished and sanctuary areas. But as oyster biomass in sanctuaries continued to increase through 2014 and 2015, populations in areas open to fishing declined in those years. According to the report, this is likely due to the harvest of those oysters born in 2010 and 2012—inside the sanctuaries, these older oysters were continuing to grow and reproduce.
In 2010, Maryland adopted an updated oyster management plan, expanding the range of sanctuaries and designating areas to remain open to harvest. The study marks the first evaluation in DNR’s commitment to review the plan’s effectiveness every five years and to propose adjustments if necessary. But the report suggests it’s too early to conclude that oyster restoration efforts have been successful.
“Given the complexity of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, five years has not been long enough to show how oyster populations respond to the absence of harvest,” the report states. Still, the report recommends making adjustments to current sanctuary boundaries, while continuing to maintain sanctuaries in 20 to 30 percent of the Maryland portion of the Bay.
The State Oyster Advisory Commission, a 23-member group created to advise DNR on oyster-related matters, is expected to review the report and make recommendations on the state’s oyster restoration efforts, including postponed work in the Tred Avon River.
The report is available on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website.
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
With its rough shell, gray body and big ecological value, the eastern oyster is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay. And for decades, protecting oyster populations has been part of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s work. But it was not until the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that our partners committed to what is known as a tributary-based restoration strategy, setting a goal to restore oyster reefs in ten Maryland and Virginia rivers by 2025 in order to foster the ecological services these reefs provide.
In Maryland, three tributaries—often referred to collectively as the Choptank Complex—have been selected for oyster reef restoration, which will take place where oyster harvest doesn’t occur. While the implementation of restoration treatments in Harris Creek was completed this September, work remains in two other waterways that flow into the Choptank. According to a December update from our Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, 589 acres of oyster reefs are targeted for restoration in the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers. That’s an area bigger than the town of Oxford, Maryland, which is located between the two waterways.
But what does restoring reefs to a tributary entail? The process varies by state and even by waterway. While its overarching steps—from selecting a tributary and setting a target to tracking progress and monitoring oyster health—are often the same, a range of factors can impact the specific course of work. The availability of shell and other hard substrates (which are used to build reefs) and the availability of spat (which are planted on reefs) are of particular concern in a region where both resources are used for other work (including aquaculture and shellfish harvest).
Nevertheless, work is underway in the Little Choptank and Tred Avon. In the Little Choptank, which has a restoration target of 442 acres, 114 acres have been built and 35 have been seeded with spat to date. In the Tred Avon, which has a restoration target of 147 acres, 17 have been built and just over two and a half have been seeded to date. The next progress report from the Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup will be released in spring of 2016, and tributary teams in Virginia will continue their work in the Piankatank, Lafayette and Lynnhaven rivers. The two-year work plan detailing the steps that will be taken to restore reefs in Maryland and Virginia will be released in summer.
Update: On January 13, 2016, the Chesapeake Bay Journal reported that the state of Maryland has instituted a "brief pause" in its construction of oyster reefs in the Tred Avon River. Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark J. Belton told the newspaper that the pause will be in place until the state completes an internal review of its oyster management policies, due in July.
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
With the presence of historic places like Cross Street Market, it is no wonder why Baltimore is lauded as ‘Charm City.’ Nestled into the heart of Federal Hill and just blocks away from the Inner Harbor, the market is a favorite of visitors and locals alike. One restaurant in particular, Nick’s Oyster Bar, can be found brimming with purple-clad fans on Raven’s game days, drinking beer and slurping down oysters that are served up with a smile by local personality and shucking pro, George Hastings.
Standing amidst the hustle and bustle of the market is Hastings, a cheery man in a flat cap, greeting passersby with a warm smile on his face and a hearty laugh. As he interacts with customers, it quickly becomes clear that this man is a cherished local celebrity.
Hastings, a decorated oyster shucker, grew up in Southwest Baltimore, learning his craft at the age of 14 from his neighbor, a native to the Northern Neck of Virginia along the Rappahannock River who brought his skills to Baltimore during the Great Depression when he came looking for work. “I would come to Cross Street Market with my neighbor to pick up oysters to take to different venues,” Hastings said. “At that time, Nick’s was not here and the seafood part of the market was owned by someone else until 1971. Mr. Nick had three sons that were all in my age group – I got to be friends with them and started shucking oysters for them once the restaurant opened.”
After years honing his skills at oyster roasts and other catering events, he began participating in and exceling at local shucking competitions. “I entered a few shucking contests and was fortunate enough to win those,” explained Hastings, “I also entered the National Oyster Shucking Contest and won that twice – and for that I got to represent the United States at the International Oyster Festival in Galway, Ireland.”
The National Oyster Shucking Contest is held in Saint Mary’s County, Md., every year during the third weekend in October. The festival has been around for 49 years with 2016 marking the 50th anniversary. “It’s going to be a big time,” said Hastings in reference to the 50th anniversary celebration. “Lord willing, I will be there. I have to keep the young guys honest,” he continued.
Shucking competitions are based on speed and presentation, participants are timed on how long it takes to open two dozen oysters. “There is a lot of anticipation, there is a countdown then you just go into a frenzy of opening two dozen oysters as fast and furious as you can. When you’re finished you put your hands up and nine out of ten shuckers will be shaking from the adrenaline,” said Hastings
At that time, three watermen judges grade the shucker’s handiwork, adding penalty seconds for every infraction that they find. They are looking for the oysters to be whole, uncut, not punctured and severed loose from the shell with no dirt, grit or mud particles in them.
Just like most things, perfecting a shucking technique takes time and dedication. “The old saying is, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice,’” said Hastings. When competing, he aims to shuck a dozen oysters per minute as clean and as fast as he can. “I hope not to get any more than a minute in penalty seconds. You can win with a [total] time of three minutes or less,” he explained.
There are many ways to shuck an oyster, and in Hasting’s opinion, any way that you can open it – whether with a knife, screwdriver or hammer – is just fine. His preferred method, however, is a traditional mid-Atlantic stabbing style as opposed another popular method of opening the bivalve by its hinge. Both styles can be viewed in the tutorial below.
For those working to perfect their form, Hastings recommends wearing gloves and proceeding with caution as the shells are very sharp and often cut more people than the knives do. Additionally, for those that enjoy eating oysters, “don’t put the shell in your mouth,” he warns. “Slurp it up off the top like kissing or pick it up with a fork. If there is bacteria in and around that oyster, it will be on the outside of the shell, not the inside. It’s the silt and stuff that is on the outside that could be detrimental to you.”
In addition to shucking, Hastings also gives back to the cause by partnering with the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) to help with shell recycling, restoration events and fundraisers. “A very dear friend of mine, Vernon P. Johnson Jr., and I contacted ORP about looking to restaurants for recycled shells. ORP was looking for shells at the time to put spat on to grow oysters and we noticed that there were a lot of restaurants and caterers that would throw the shells away. We thought that if they [the shells] could be captured, it would be a great way to collect shells – and that’s the idea that started the Shell Recycling Alliance,” explained Hastings.
One oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water per day and can play a big role in improving water quality, which is why restoration efforts aim to restore populations to healthy levels in the Chesapeake Bay. “It’s a sustainable thing, we plant oysters, we can eat them, we save the shells, we plant more oysters and continue with the cycle,” said Hastings. “My wish is for the Bay to be as healthy as it was prior to the industrial revolution. That’s the biggest thing that knocked the Bay into the weeds – so to say,” he continued. “I think we can come back from that now, but we must remember that it took us 100 years to get here, restoration is not going to happen overnight. It could very well take another 100 plus years to get back to that.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
For many of the people living upstream of the Chesapeake Bay, daily life doesn’t involve crab pots or oyster dredges. A group of such Bay novices — including one member who had never been on a boat — assembled in Crisfield, Md., this fall to take a ferry to Smith Island, one of the last two inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. Actually a small cluster of low-lying stretches of land, Smith Island and its Virginia neighbor Tangier Island carry a rich cultural history dating back to the 1600s. Over the years, they have been subjected to the extreme weather conditions in the open Chesapeake Bay and forces of sea level rise and land subsidence that have already claimed surrounding islands. The trip, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup, gave the foresters the chance to experience the unique life of a Chesapeake waterman.
“These participants are engaged in work throughout the watershed that directly benefits the quality of the Bay, but often they have very little experience on the Bay itself,” said Craig Highfield of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Forests for the Bay initiative, who has facilitated the excursion for the past two years. “This trip is a way to connect their work with a community that relies so intimately with a healthy Bay.”
Over the course of two and a half days, the group of foresters followed educators from Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smith Island environmental education center, taking in the unique culture, exploring the changing environment and finding new connections that bring the Bay closer to home.
“I think this group was able to draw similarities between the rural communities they work with — who rely on the natural resources on the land — with this rural community that relies on the natural resources of the Bay,” said Highfield.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
It is a refreshing June morning as the sun shines down on Solomons, Maryland, causing the Patuxent River to sparkle in its reflection. A crew of four Washington, D.C., area chefs stands on a wooden dock alongside Steve Vilnit, the Director of Fisheries Marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), eagerly awaiting the arrival of our captain, Bruce Abbott, and his fishing vessel.
Vilnit coordinates educational trips intended to connect local chefs with living resources. By creating these experiences, he is able to spread the word about the importance of buying local seafood and illustrate the hard work that goes into moving fresh seafood from the ocean to the dinner table.
The O’Dark Thirty appears in the distance and sidles up to the dock for the crew and guests to climb aboard. Once everyone is situated, Abbott heads east, out of the mouth of the Patuxent and into the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. About 20 minutes go by before the boat comes to a halt next to one of roughly 1,500 pound nets in the Bay. Pound nets are used by watermen to harvest large quantities of a specific fish species, like perch, menhaden, croaker or striped bass. Vilnit describes the net and why it is so popular: “The way a pound net works is by playing off of a fish’s natural instinct to head to deeper water when they feel threatened. The net funnels them into the center where they are trapped,” he said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Vilnit explained that, from a sustainability standpoint, pound nets are a great fishing method. Despite its high bycatch rate, the majority of the fish in the net are kept alive. “The fish are just swimming around in the net until the fishermen come. What they’ll do when they pull the net is, they start cinching it up so it pulls all the fish together and congregates them and then they scoop them out one-by-one with a dip net and release all the bycatch.”
The journey continued towards Maryland’s Eastern Shore, stopping next for a live demonstration of trotlining. Trotlines are a favored method for catching blue crabs in the Bay, but can only be used in its tributaries, as they can pose a navigational hazard for boats; crab pots are standard gear for those harvesting crabs in the main stem.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
After the demonstration, Vilnit passed around the clawed critters for an up-close-and-personal anatomy lesson. “The apron—or [flap] on the belly—of the female crab is rounded like the Capitol dome and the apron on the male looks like the Washington Monument. You can also see a difference in the claw color: the females have what they call fingernail polish—it’s the red tips on the claws—versus the males that have blue claws,” Vilnit said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
The final leg of our trip took us to Barren Island Oysters, a sustainability-minded, high-end oyster company based out of Hoopers Island, Maryland. Owner and founder Tim Devine launched the farm slightly more than a year ago and has already seen tremendous success.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Devine’s company is an authentic example of the power of proper research and collaboration. “I had a lot of time to do some market research as I waited the 18 months to get my permits for this business,” Devine said. “In the meantime I was shooting photography for a magazine that took me around to different restaurants, so I would ask the chefs, ‘Hey, what do you want?’” What he found was a high demand for the disease-resistant, triploid oyster.
Listening to the calls from the chefs, Devine began to grow triploid oysters in an unorthodox fashion: chipping off new shell growth forced the oysters to not only grow stronger but also develop a deep, uniform, cup-shaped shell. “I think my biggest advantage is that I didn’t know anything coming into this, so I had no history as to how all these people [watermen] do this. Because this is such a new industry and there are many new markets for a premium oyster, I wasn’t stuck in any old ways of farming,” Devine explained.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
By openly communicating with chefs, Devine was able to discover a niche market for premium oysters that would meet these chefs’ requests. Vilnit hopes his educational tours will create more relationships of this kind. And for those who cannot get out on the water, signing onto the True Blue and Oyster Pledge programs is a positive way that chefs and restaurateurs can show their establishment’s commitment to fresh, locally harvested seafood.
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.
The amount of oysters in Maryland waters has continued to rise, according to the results of an annual survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
While habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have reduced Chesapeake Bay oyster populations to a fraction of historic levels, Maryland’s 2013 Fall Oyster Survey found that oyster abundance in state waters has reached its highest level since 1985. With the diseases Dermo and MSX remaining at below-average levels, oyster survival rate has risen to 92 percent. As a result, harvests have increased.
“Preliminary harvest reports for the past season have already surpassed 400,000 bushels—with a dockside value in excess of $13 million—the highest in at least 15 years,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill in a media release. “Coupled with the survey results, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic a sustainable oyster population can once again play a vital role in the Bay’s ecosystem and Maryland’s economy.”
Image courtesy Terry Brock/Flickr
Maryland, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oyster Recovery Partnership, is working to restore oyster reefs in three of its rivers as part of a federally mandated effort to restore oyster populations in a select number of Bay tributaries over the next decade. In February, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup released a report on the state’s progress: reefs have been built and seeded on almost 190 acres in Harris Creek, and restoration plans have been drafted for the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers, targeting 400 acres and 193 acres, respectively. The report also notes a higher-than-expected survival rate for spat planted in Harris Creek in 2012 and 2013, likely due to the “ground-truthing” of reefs that ensured oyster seed was laid on the best available habitat.
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.
At sunrise, the Roughwater heads out of its Solomons Island harbor and onto the Patuxent River. Driven by a captain who has worked the Chesapeake Bay for two decades, the boat stops over an unseen reef. Simon Dean and his crew—Brian Elder and Jason Williams—are wearing waterproof bibs and white rubber boots, and are ready to bring in oysters.
Known as patent tonging, the work that takes place on the Roughwater moves in one fluid motion: hydraulic tongs enter the water, grab a mess of oysters and dump them with a crash onto a metal culling table. Three-inch grooves built into the table’s edge help the crew cull, or sort the oysters by size. Good oysters are tossed into a plastic basket, while too-small bivalves and empty shells go back overboard.
The patent tongs are controlled by foot pedals: one pushes the tongs up and down, while the other swings them open and closed. “At the end of the day, your feet are more tired than your hands,” Dean said.
As a waterman, Dean’s work is dependent on the seasons. During the winter, he oysters. During the summer, he crabs and takes fishing parties out on the Bay. He bought the Roughwater in 2009, and was “running everybody else’s boat before that.”
Wooden-handled culling hammers help Dean and his crew knock undersized oysters off of bigger bivalves. Young oysters attach themselves to adults in order to grow, forming dense reefs that offer habitat to fish, crabs and other critters. While concrete is often used to construct artificial reefs, shell makes the best substrate for spat.
Watermen must work to “get as much shell off as you can,” Dean said. In part, this is because buyers prefer the look of a clean oyster. And in part, it is because shell must go back into the Bay, where it will provide a new place for young oysters to settle.
In an effort to restore natural oyster populations to the Bay, shell recycling programs have popped up across the region and lawmakers have established oyster sanctuaries and strengthened harvesting restrictions. But this seems to have fueled tension between states and the industry and fed the belief that watermen often work in conflict with the law.
Dean and his wife, Rachel, are working to change this oft-held perception, using heritage tourism to teach both children and adults about estuarine life and the role that watermen play in the region’s history and economy. “We’re not poachers. We’re not outlaws. We’re not thieves,” Dean said. And he hopes that Solomons Island Heritage Tours will “break down that stigma that watermen have [against them].”
Dean and his crew don’t have time for conversation while the tongs are running. Dean thinks about how he will sell his oysters, and how he will compete with other watermen. By the end of the day, they have reached their patent tonging limit: 15 bushels per license, with two licenses per boat. Dean will sell some of these to restaurants and some to individuals. But will he ever keep any for himself? “I like them,” Dean said. But when it comes to eating them, “I just don’t have time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography.
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.
According to the results of a survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), oyster abundance has increased in state waters for the second consecutive year and more of the bivalves are withstanding pressures from pollution and disease.
The 2012 Fall Oyster Survey, which has monitored the status of the state’s oyster population since 1939, found a 93 percent oyster survival rate—the highest since 1985—and a lower-than-average prevalence of MSX and dermo, two diseases that have decimated the Chesapeake Bay’s native oysters in recent decades.
In a news release, DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O’Connell attributed these successes to the establishment of oyster sanctuaries, which are closed to harvest and which could allow oysters to build up a natural disease resistance.
Maryland is currently restoring oyster reefs in the Harris Creek and Little Choptank River sanctuaries, as part of a federally mandated effort to restore oyster populations in 20 Bay tributaries by 2025.
Read more about the 2012 Fall Oyster Survey results.
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.
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to express gratitude for the good in life. We have much to be thankful for—and so does the Chesapeake Bay! Here is a look at six moments from the past year that signaled good news for the watershed.
6. A sustainable blue crab population. The most recent report on the Bay’s blue crab stock reveals a population that has reached sustainable levels and is not overfished. Winter estimates place the adult female blue crab population at 97 million, based on a dredge survey taken at almost 1,500 sites throughout the Bay. The survey also measured more juveniles than have been counted in the past two decades. A stable blue crab population means a more stable Bay economy, with watermen employed, restaurants stocked and recreational crabbers (and crab-eaters!) happy.
Image courtesy Erickson Smith/Flickr
5. Additional American eels. American eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the removal of a large dam that once blocked eels from moving upstream. Other anadromous swimmers like shad, herring and striped bass—which must migrate from the ocean into rivers to spawn—are also using this reopened habitat. Our rivers are thankful to see the return of these important residents.
4. A huge boost in oyster restoration. This year, restoration partners in Maryland put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen. While some of the oyster larvae went into the Upper Bay, most went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. While habitat loss, disease and historic overfishing have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, planting “spat on shell” onto harvest-safe sanctuaries is one way to bring the water-filtering bivalves back.
3. A lot of living shorelines. When shorelines wash away, fish, crabs and other wildlife lose valuable habitat, and coastal landowners lose their lawns. To curb shoreline erosion, coastal property owners are turning toward living shorelines, which replace hardened bulkhead and riprap with grasses and trees. This summer, the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Living Shorelines program awarded $800,000 to 16 homeowner associations, non-profit organizations and towns to install more than 6,800 feet of living shoreline and wetland habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
2. Greater green infrastructure. With the implementation of green infrastructure, cities can use the natural environment to better manage stormwater runoff. Green roofs, rain gardens and pervious pavement, for instance, can absorb stormwater runoff before it flows into local rivers and streams. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded $4 million to local governments for green infrastructure projects. But the environment is not the only one who will be thankful; green infrastructure can revitalize communities and produce cost benefits that can exceed those of traditional stormwater management methods. We are grateful that more towns will be greener in both color and concept!
1. Long-term improvements in Bay health. A number of Bay monitoring sites have shown long-term improvements in nutrient and sediment levels. According to an August report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985, two-thirds have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts—from upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to cuts in fertilizer use on farms and suburban lawns—are working.
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.
Kelley Cox knows what it takes to bring fresh seafood to the table—and to keep fisheries thriving in the Chesapeake Bay. Cox is part of a family of watermen that has worked for five generations out of Tilghman Island, Md. When Hurricane Isabelle destroyed 200 feet of their seafood buying dock in 2003, Cox did not want her heritage to be destroyed with it. She envisioned a place where she could preserve her family's legacy while teaching the public to steward the environment and the Bay. Two years later, Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC) was born.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
Named after Cox's father, Garland Phillips, owner and operator of Phillips Wharf Seafood, PWEC now hosts educational programs and tours of the Bay. The center also coordinates a tree planting project and oyster growing program for residents of the three-mile long Tilghman Island. A marine biologist by profession but a waterman by blood, Cox makes sure the center’s educational efforts address both Bay ecology and Bay heritage.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
Mobile Marine Fun
From preschoolers to third-graders, students can hold horseshoe crabs and diamondback terrapins or play predator, prey and pollution games to better understand how the Bay ecosystem works—all on board a converted school bus better known as the Fishmobile. This traveling marine science center visits schools, summer camps and even birthday parties! Other educational programs at PWEC allow students to race crabs, dress up as a waterman and cruise the Choptank River and the Bay to watch watermen work.
Image courtesy PWEC/Facebook
If you have residential or commercial waterfront property or keep your boat in a marina on Tilghman Island, you can volunteer for Tilghman Islanders Grow Oysters (TIGO)! Participants place PWEC-provided cages of oyster spat into the water and give them a shake once every week or two. After nine or 10 months, the growing oysters are transported to a sanctuary and replaced with new spat. The program has placed 200 cages in the water, but PWEC won’t stop until every pier on the island is growing spat.
Ecology cruises allow participants to see Tilghman Island in a new light—from the water! Excursions for local artists allow participants to paint or draw the island from an evening ride aboard the Express Royale.
More of the Chesapeake Bay’s baby oysters appear to be surviving threats from pollution and disease, according to new data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The 2011 Fall Oyster Survey shows a 92 percent survival rate, the highest figure since 1985.
“This is more than double the survival rate in 2002, when record disease levels killed off 58 percent of the population,” DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O’Connell said. “The overall biomass index — which measures population health by volume — is also up 44 percent over last year. Not only did these baby oysters thrive under ideal growing conditions, this year we also found a new, high spatset in high-salinity areas such as the Tangier Sound.”
High flows from heavy rain storms last spring and late summer affected oysters above the Bay Bridge; however, that represents a relatively small part of the total oyster population. The lower salinities that resulted from higher freshwater flows actually proved beneficial to the majority of Maryland’s oysters because less-salty water keeps diseases at bay.
The survival rate is the percentage of oysters found alive in a sample. Sampling took place at 263 oyster bars in the Bay and its tributaries over two months last fall. Maryland’s oyster survey is one of the longest running resource monitoring programs in the world; the state has been keeping track of oyster population survival, reproduction and disease levels since 1939.
In another positive bit of news, scientists at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory report that the frequency and intensity of the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo are low. Both of these once-devastating diseases now occur at the lowest levels on record.
For more information about the oyster survey, visit Maryland DNR’s website.
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.
A new study by researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science recommends that Maryland place a moratorium on commercial oyster harvest from the Chesapeake Bay.
According to the study, Maryland’s oyster population is only 0.3 percent of what it was at its peak in the late 1800s. The population decline is due to a number of factors, including disease, pollution and overfishing.
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.
The number of baby oysters in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay is at its highest level since 1997, and more young oysters appears to be surviving the effects of diseases, according to a recently completed survey by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Since 1939, Maryland has monitored the status of the oyster population through annual field surveys. The surveys track three critical components of the oyster population: reproduction levels, disease infection levels and annual mortality rates.
The two-month 2010 fall population assessment covered 260 oyster bars and 399 samples throughout the Bay and its rivers. Scientists found 80 baby oysters (called spat) per bushel; about five times the 25-year average of 16.
The increased spat set is an immediate asset to Maryland’s expanded sanctuary program,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O.Connell. These protected oysters will grow and reproduce, contributing more oysters to the Bay's sanctuary and surrounding aquaculture and public fishery areas, and providing important ecological benefits such as water filtration and reef habitat.
Oyster spat were also widely distributed throughout the Bay and its rivers. While the largest amounts were in the lower Bay’s saltier waters, where reproduction is typically more successful, a moderate spatfall also occurred in fresher waters that generally have little to no spat sets. Some of these areas included the upper Bay as far north as Pooles Island and the upper reaches of the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent rivers.
Additionally, the frequency and intensity of the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo remains low. Dermo remains below the long-term average for the eighth consecutive year, and MSX has fallen after a spike in 2009. Oyster survivorship, measured by the percentage of living oysters per sample, was 88 percent, the highest level since 1985 and more than double the 2002 level.
"These moderate levels of natural oyster mortalities during recent years may reflect increases in disease resistances among oysters and their progeny that survived the severe disease pressures of the 1999-2002 drought,"said Chris Dungan, manager of oyster disease research at the NOAA Oxford Lab.
Since 2000, DNR, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and the University of Maryland have produced more than 2.5 billion oyster spat in hatcheries and planted then in Maryland waters. The partnership has also reclaimed thousands of acres of buried shells from derelict oyster reefs.
Visit Maryland DNR's website to view the full results of the oyster survey.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) will set aside more than 1,000 acres of state-owned water bottom to help expand clam and oyster farming, a practice that benefits both the Chesapeake Bay’s health and the state’s economy.
VMRC is expected in January to approve the creation of 15 new “aquaculture opportunity zones”: hard-bottom areas located in clean, shallow waters that serve as nursery areas for fish and crabs. About half of the total acreage is located around Tangier Island, while the rest is located in the Rappahannock River and the tributaries of Mobjack Bay.
“These are excellent locations for the farming of oysters and clams in on-bottom cages,” said Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Doug Domenech. “Shellfish have an amazing ability to purge the water, which will help clean the Bay, and the economic benefits from an expanded aquaculture industry are potentially quite substantial. This is a win-win.”
Aquaculture is a booming, multi-million dollar industry in Virginia. Oyster gardening under private piers and along the shoreline of privately owned waterfront property is becoming increasingly popular.
VMRC will waive the normal costs to lease water bottoms for private oyster growing in the new aquaculture opportunity zones. There will also be a streamlined permitting process and a simple application. The zones will be divided up into a maximum of 5-acre blocks and assigned on a first-come, first-served basis to any Virginia resident.
“We want people to take advantage of this exciting opportunity, especially commercial oystermen,” said VMRC Fisheries Chief Jack Travelstead. “Shellfish aquaculture is more dependable than going out and catching oysters, and reduces pressure on our wild stocks that have been suffering under the pressure of two oyster diseases.”
Visit VMRC’s website to learn more about the new aquaculture opportunity zones.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) and its partners processed, cleaned and transported more than 60,000 bushels of oyster shells in 2010, using the shells to produce and plant more than 450 million baby oysters in 316 acres of the Chesapeake Bay.
Oyster shells are a limited resource and a key part of Maryland’s oyster restoration efforts, according to ORP Executive Director Stephan Abel. Reusing oyster shells provides habitat for baby oysters, which need to attach to another oyster’s hard shell to survive.
The oyster shells were collected in part through ORP’s new Oyster Shell Recycling Alliance, a first-of-its-kind network of restaurants, caterers, seafood wholesalers and citizen volunteers that donate and/or collect used oyster shells. In its first year, the alliance attracted more than 50 establishments from Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia and other areas.
Oyster shells collected from alliance members are used by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Horn Point Lab Hatchery in Cambridge, Maryland. After letting the shells age for about one year, the hatchery adds the shells and oyster larvae to swimming pool-size tanks, where the larvae attach to the shells. The resulting baby oysters, called spat, are planted in designated areas in the Bay.
Through the Shell Recycling Alliance, ORP collected nearly 2 million oyster shells, which will result in more than 20 million oysters being planted back into the Chesapeake Bay over the next year.
“To meet our goals, it is critical that a greater number of shells are returned for reseeding and we hope this alliance will encourage increased participation in the coming year,” Abel said.
ORP works closely with UMCES, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other partners to restore and protect oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.
For more information about ORP and oyster shell recycling, visit www.oysterrecovery.org.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question came from Soohyun, who wants to know: “What role might oysters play in the Bay’s future?”
Oysters are vital to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, but are in serious need of continued restoration to thrive. Oysters are extremely significant both economically and ecologically in the Chesapeake Bay region, but without effective management of the oyster fishery, the bivalve -- which is still at just 1 percent of historic levels -- will continue to suffer.
When populations are sufficient, oysters create reefs that can provide a large area of nooks and crevices for aquatic species. Oyster reefs can create 50 times the hard habitat surface area of a mudflat of the same size. Many Bay species, including sponges, sea squirts, and small crabs and fishes, need the hard surfaces provided by these oyster reefs to survive.
Another important function oysters play in the Bay ecosystem is their role as a filter feeder. Oysters pump large volumes of water through their gills to filter out plankton and other particles, including algae, suspended sediments and chemical contaminants. One oyster can filter more than 50 gallons per day.
Because of the importance of oysters, several organizations around the watershed are building artificial reefs from recycled oyster shells and other hard materials. Artificial reefs provide habitat that is similiar to natural oyster reefs, giving oyster spat (baby oysters) the hard surfaces they need to attach to and survive. Over time, it is expected that oysters will build up on the artificial reefs and create natural reefs.
There has also been a lot of focus on raising baby oysters in hatcheries, protecting existing oyster reefs as harvest-free "sanctuaries," and developing and promoting oyster aquaculture programs. Other projects, such as Marylanders Grow Oysters and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster gardening, get citizens involved in restoring oysters.
The Bay's oyster population may never be as healthy as it once was, but with new and innovative restoration efforts taking place across the region, it seems like it will be possible for oysters to continue to be an important part of the Bay ecosystem for many years to come. If you’d like to help restore oysters, check out some ideas from the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events.
A new oyster partnership in Virginia will bring watermen, scientists, businesses and citizens together to help restore the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters while creating jobs at the same time.
The Oyster Company of Virginia (OCVA) will train watermen to become oyster farmers and equip them with cages, oyster seed and other supplies to raise oysters on leased areas of the Bay’s bottom. The watermen will be paid to plant the oyster seed, then harvest and sell the adult oysters.
To help pay for the project, citizens and businesses can join OCVA at a cost of $175 per oyster cage. Members will be able to follow online the status of the cages they fund.
OCVA hopes another aspect of the project – building artificial oyster reefs in sanctuaries that are protected from harvest – will eventually remove enough nitrogen from the Bay to become part of a nutrient trading program to meet pollution reductions needed for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.
The OCVA formed in August in response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. OCVA founding members, which include representatives from the Virginia Watermen’s Association, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company, hope to lead Virginia away from purchasing the majority of its oyster supply from the Gulf of Mexico and toward restoring the Virginia oyster industry and the health of the Bay.
For more information, visit the Oyster Company of Virginia’s website at www.oysterva.com.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question comes from Lillian: “What is the waste product of a Bay oyster? Is it toxic and is there a use for this product?”
This question ended up being a little bit complex because there are several different interpretations of what the “waste” of an oyster is. Are you referring to the waste left from their filtering of the Bay’s water? The solid waste they expel? Or the waste shells left from human consumption of oysters? So we addressed all of these facets of the question for Lillian.
When oysters feed on algae -- filtering the water in the Bay at the same time -- some waste is left behind. Oysters take in water, filter out what they need for nourishment and expel the rest back into the water. This waste is often consumed by other organisms. In this way, oysters truly do provide for many of the Bay's other creatures.
Oysters also expel solid waste in the form of pellets, which decompose into the atmosphere as nitrogen. This type of nitrogen is not harmful to the Bay like the nitrogen that comes from fertilizer, animal manure, wastewater, cars and other sources that pollute the Bay.
The oyster waste caused by human consumption is perhaps the most useful, if proper procedures are followed. Instead of just tossing your oyster shells at the end of the night, they can be collected and used to rebuild the Bay's oyster population by providing habitat for oyster spat. This process, known as oyster shell recycling, is valuable to the Bay ecosystem because it gives spat a hard surface to grow on.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership has information on its website about how to get involved in its oyster shell recycling program. The Marylanders Grow Oysters program is another great way to get involved with oyster restoration if you live on one of the waterways that are part of the program.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events.
More than 2,000 new oyster cages are expected to be added along seven new creeks and rivers as part of a popular citizen oyster restoration program called Marylanders Grow Oysters.
The new tributaries, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Anne Arundel County, are:
Marylanders Grow Oysters involves waterfront homeowners in oyster restoration by supplying them with cages full of baby oysters, called oyster spat. By raising oyster spat in cages on residential piers, the oysters are protected while they are young and vulnerable to predators.
Participants keep the oyster cages for about nine months. The oyster spat are then planted in a sanctuary located on the same creek or river. Oyster sanctuaries are closed to harvesting, allowing the oyster reefs to filter pollutants in the water and provide habitat for other fish and shellfish.
Through the program, more than 61,000 oyster cages have been deployed off residential piers on 23 Maryland creeks and rivers.
Marylanders Grow Oysters began in September 2008 as a joint effort among the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and several local organizations. The first oyster “graduates” of the program came from more than 800 cages tended to by nearly 200 volunteers, and were planted on a sanctuary on the Tred Avon River in August 2009.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley announced the program’s expansion at the recent Chesapeake Executive Council meeting in Baltimore.
“The Marylanders Grow Oysters program has become quite a movement,” said Gov. O’Malley. “It shows how committed Maryland citizens are to cleaning up the Bay and taking care of the tributaries that flow through their backyard.”
Visit the Marylanders Grow Oysters website for more information, including a list of all the tributaries that are part of the program and if you’re eligible to grow oysters.
Maryland will expand oyster sanctuaries and aquaculture to help rebuild the Chesapeake Bay’s depleted native oyster population under a three-point plan introduced by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Maryland’s Proposed Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan is designed to enhance oyster restoration for ecological purposes and encourage the development of aquaculture businesses, while continuing to support a more targeted and sustainable public oyster fishery.
The Chesapeake’s oyster population has remained at about one percent of historic levels since 1994, greatly affecting both the health of the Bay and the shellfish industry in Maryland. During this time period, quality oyster bars in Maryland decreased by 70 percent, from 200,000 to 36,000, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“Our native oyster is part of the public trust, and we have a clear and urgent responsibility to restore this iconic species to the Chesapeake Bay,” said Gov. O’Malley.
The proposal aims to:
The plan is based on the findings of a six-year Environmental Impact Study of oyster restoration options, as well as the work of the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission and the Aquaculture Coordinating Council.
The regulations will be published in the Maryland register on July 2, which will begin a six-week public comment period. If approved, the regulations will take effect in early September, prior to the October 1 start of the oyster season.
Learn more about the oyster restoration plan at DNR’s website.
The federal government will restore clean water in the Chesapeake Bay and its thousands of local waterways, implement conservation practices on four million acres of farmland, conserve two million acres of undeveloped land, and rebuild oysters in 20 Bay tributaries as part of a new strategy for protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The federal strategy was developed under President Obama’s Chesapeake Bay Executive Order issued in May 2009, which declared the Bay a national treasure and called on the federal government to deepen its commitment to restoring and protecting the Bay.
Through the new strategy, federal agencies will dedicate unprecedented resources, aggressively target actions where they can have the greatest impact, ensure that federal lands and facilities lead by example in environmental stewardship, and take a comprehensive, ecosystem-wide approach to restoration.
The strategy directly supports restoration activities by local governments, watershed groups, conservation districts, land owners and citizens.
Many actions in the strategy will also have economic benefits for the Chesapeake region, such as conserving working farms, expanding oyster aquaculture, supporting conservation corps programs and green jobs, and developing an environmental marketplace to buy, sell and trade pollution reduction credits.
“This strategy outlines the broadest partnerships, the strongest protections and the most accountability we've seen in decades,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who chairs the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay. The Federal Leadership Committee, established by the Executive Order, includes senior representatives from the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Transportation.
To increase accountability and accelerate restoration, federal agencies will meet milestones every two years for actions that make progress toward measurable environmental goals. These will support and complement two-year milestones set by the six Bay states and the District of Columbia.
Many actions to protect and restore the Bay will occur in the next few years, another step to accelerate cleanup efforts.
The strategy also outlines federal coordination with state activities, identifies goals for restoring the Bay, creates a process for reporting on progress, and explains how efforts will be adapted based on science and resources.
Read the full federal strategy at the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order website.
To restore clean water, the EPA will:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will:
“We will help the Bay watershed’s farmers and forest owners put new conservation practices on four million acres of agricultural lands so that agriculture can build on the improvements in nutrient and sediment reductions that we have seen over the last 25 years,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
To protect priority lands, the Department of the Interior will:
“Our strategy provides the blueprint for finally restoring the Chesapeake Bay to health – its bountiful wildlife, abundant fish and shellfish, beautiful waterways and rich wetlands,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working closely with Maryland and Virginia, will launch a Bay-wide oyster restoration strategy that:
"It is critical that we apply our best science toward native oyster restoration and habitat protection, as well as toward development of sustainable aquaculture,” said Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. “Ecosystem-based approaches to management will enable progress toward a healthy, sustainable Chesapeake ecosystem that will include oysters for generations to come.”
Video From the Release of the Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus
U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Anne Castle and U.S. Department of Commerce Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere Monica Medina
The Oyster Recovery Partnership has launched Maryland’s first Oyster Shell Recycling Alliance, which will collect used oyster and clam shells from restaurants for oyster reef restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay.
Local oyster shuckers, watermen and Oyster Recovery Partnership staff will pick up oyster shells from 20 restaurants, catering companies and seafood wholesalers in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The shells will go to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore, which only uses recycled shells for its oyster restoration efforts. The lab raises baby oysters, which need shells to grow on, for oyster reef restoration projects in the Bay.
Once the baby oysters -- called spat -- attach to the recycled shells, they are added to existing oyster reefs in the Bay and its rivers. These new oysters and shells help oyster reefs grow and provide more habitat for other reef-dwelling creatures.
"This initiative is not only the first of its kind in Maryland, it is special because it all began with volunteers from the oyster shucking community who care deeply about our Bay," said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
A pilot program conducted over the past 18 months collected more than 3,000 bushels (about 1.5 million shells) from local catering companies and on-call pickups. As a result of this initiative, the program anticipates planting approximately 15 million new oysters in the Bay.
For a list of participating partners and more information, visit www.oysterrecovery.org.
Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.
Alvina asked: “What role do oysters play in the heath of the bay? What role might oysters play in the Bay’s future?”
Every native species is vital to the health and survival of any ecosystem. The eastern oyster in the Chesapeake Bay is no exception.
One major role oysters play in the Bay is filtering the water. Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they pump large volumes of water through their gills to sift out plankton and other particles they need for nourishmnet. But this process serves a double purpose: As the oysters feed, they also filter out harmful pollutants from the Bay's waters, helping to keep the water clear and clean for bay grasses and other underwater life.
Oysters also provide habitat for many species in the Chesapeake Bay. By forming reefs, oysters create small ecosystems with nooks and crannies where tiny aquatic animals hide from predators. Reefs can create 50 times the surface area of a flat, muddy Bay bottom of the same size, which is vital to sponges, sea squirts, skilletfish and other organisms that live attached to a hard surface.
Chesapeake Bay oysters are also a food source for various other Bay creatures. Anemones and sea nettles depend on oyster larvae for survival, while flatworms and mud crabs feed on new oyster spat. Older spat and first-year oysters are consumed by blue crabs and some types of fish. Some adult oysters even end up as prey for shorebirds like oystercatchers.
The roles of this important species are dramatically affected by variations in the oyster population. A diminished oyster population is not the sole reason for the Bay's poor health, but it is certainly detrimental. One of the challenges of Chesapeake Bay restoration is to restore and maintain a healthy oyster population for ecological purposes while also supporting an oyster fishery.
The future of the Chesapeake's oyster population depends on restoration and management efforts today. For instance, Maryland just introduced a proposal to increase the amount of oyster sanctuaries to one-quarter of the remaining quality reefs in that state's portion of the Bay. Oyster sanctuaries are reefs where harvesting is off-limits, allowing the reefs to expand and provide the important ecological services.
As with every living thing in the Bay, there is a domino effect. Because of all their important roles in the Bay, if oysters suffer, other creatures do as well.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose it for our Question of the Week!
Oyster mortality fell for the fifth straight year in 2007, but oyster reproduction was poor throughout most of Maryland’s portion of the Bay, according to a recently released survey by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The annual oyster survey evaluates the health and population of oyster bars in Maryland. For the 2008 survey, DNR biologists used a dredge to assess more than 1,800 oysters from 282 oyster bars.
“Preliminary results from 2008 indicate that reproduction was poor throughout most of the bay, with the exception of the lower eastern shore areas of Tangier Sound, Honga River and the Little Choptank River,” said Mitch Tarnowski, DNR fisheries biologist.
Despite low reproduction, oyster mortality from the diseases MSX and Dermo appeared to be relatively low for the fifth year in a row. While not harmful to humans, MSX and Dermo have lead to the death of up to 90 percent of oysters in some areas.
Both diseases thrive in higher salinities. As a result, disease affects oysters the most during dry years, when lower than normal river flows cause higher than average salinity in the Bay. Though summer 2007 was dry, oyster disease levels were not as high as in previous dry years.
“Oyster mortality in 2006 and 2007 were the two lowest years since the 1980s,” said Mike Naylor, Director of DNR’s Shellfish Program. “It’s too early to know if this is a trend, but this is a very positive development that we will be monitoring carefully.”
DNR has conducted the annual oyster survey each fall since 1939. Biologists use a dredge to monitor natural oyster bars, oyster sanctuaries, seed production and planting areas, and dredged and fresh shell plantings.
For more information about the 2008 oyster survey, including historical mortality graphs, visit DNR’s website.
The state of Maryland planted nearly 750 million baby oysters – called oyster spat – in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers in 2009, surpassing last year’s total of 600 million spat and marking a new record for the state’s oyster restoration program.
The oyster spat were grown at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore near Cambridge. Using the spat, Maryland was able to revitalize 350 acres of oyster reefs on 26 sites across the Bay and its rivers.
Part of the reason for the large increase in spat production was an expanded partnership between UMCES, the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for the Marylanders Grow Oysters program, in which waterfront property owners raise hatchery-reared oyster spat in cages. Residents along 12 Maryland rivers are currently growing oyster spat in more than 5,000 cages; next year the spat will be transferred to oyster sanctuaries throughout the Bay.
“At a time when we are escalating all of our efforts to restore the Bay, this record planting – along with record involvement by citizen stewards in oyster restoration – gives us tremendous confidence for increasing the Bay’s oyster population,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in a statement.
The oyster restoration process involves several steps:
Watch these two videos for a further explanation on how oyster spat are produced at the Horn Point Laboratory:
Maryland is poised to continue surpassing its oyster spat production levels each year, according to UMCES president Dr. Donald Boesch. A new oyster setting facility at the Horn Point Laboratory will potentially allow UMCES to produce up to two billion oyster spat per year.
Want to do your part to help the Bay’s oysters? If you live on the water in Maryland, check out the Marylanders Grow Oysters program, which is now open to residents on 12 of the state’s rivers, including the Annemessex, Magothy and St. Mary’s.
Officials with Maryland, Virginia, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have decided against introducing Asian oysters as a way to restore the Bay’s degraded oyster population, citing “unacceptable ecological risks.” The states will instead focus on native oyster restoration.
The native-only restoration strategy will be published in the final Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), which is due to be published in late June.
The official statement released by the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration Executive Committee -- which includes the Corps, the PRFC and the natural resource secretaries from Maryland and Virginia -- reads:
Based on the current state of the science and extensive public discourse, the use of non-native oysters in Chesapeake Bay, its tidal tributaries, and the coastal bays and waters of Maryland and Virginia poses unacceptable ecological risks.
Therefore, it is prudent for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Maryland, the Commonwealth of Virginia and Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to adopt a native oyster only preferred alternative for purposes of the PEIS. In selecting the native oyster alternative, the Corps, together with the cooperating federal agencies, the State of Maryland, the Commonwealth of Virginia and PRFC will remain fully committed to using only the native oyster to work towards revitalizing oyster restoration and aquaculture in meeting commercial and ecological goals. Furthermore, the State of Maryland, the Commonwealth of Virginia and PRFC will work towards implementing biologically and economically sustainable harvesting measures for the public oyster fishery. Finally, the Corps, together with the cooperating federal agencies, the State of Maryland, the Commonwealth of Virginia and PRFC will pursue the establishment of realistic metrics, accountability measures and a performance based adaptive management methodology for all efforts in revitalizing the native oyster for purposes of achieving commercial and ecological goals.
The governors of Maryland and Virginia praised the committee’s decision.
"I am extremely pleased that we have reached an agreement on a preferred oyster restoration alternative, one that will not threaten the Bay's already stressed ecosystem,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “We look forward to collaborating with our partners in Virginia to use new science developed through this extraordinary study to support both the ecological restoration of our native oyster and the revitalization of our oyster industry with emphasis on new aquaculture opportunities."
"While we have seen certain promise in ariakensis aquaculture from the Virginia Seafood Council trials over the past seven years, we agree -- based on the recommendations of our Virginia Institute of Marine Science -- that moving forward we should focus primarily on restoring the Bay's native oyster," said Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.
The full Oyster Restoration PEIS Executive Committee is made up of the Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the secretaries of natural resources for Maryland and Virginia, working with the PRFC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Visit the Corps’ website for more information about the Oyster Restoration PEIS.
Waterfront property owners on Maryland’s Tred Avon River have a new way to become involved in the Bay restoration effort through a pilot oyster-growing program set up by several Maryland state agencies and Bay Program partners.
Marylanders Grow Oysters invites residents along the Tred Avon River, a tributary of the Choptank River in Talbot County, to grow oysters from their piers using cages filled with young oysters provided by the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
Oysters are vital to the Bay because they filter algae and pollutants out of the water and form reefs that provide habitat for underwater life. (See an oyster reef’s amazing filtering abilities in this video from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.)
The state hopes to enlist 250 homeowners in the program by the end of October. Each homeowner will place four oyster cages off their pier. After a nine- to 12-month growing period, the oysters will be planted in a protected sanctuary in the Tred Avon River, adding to the more than 1.4 billion oysters that have been planted by the state throughout Maryland waters since 2000.
For more on this pilot program, visit the Marylanders Grow Oysters website. If you do not live on the Tred Avon River but would like to participate in the program in the future, you can sign up to receive information from the Department of Natural Resources when the program expands to other Maryland tributaries.
Learn about more things you can do to help the Bay at home, in your backyard and on your boat.
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.
It is no secret that Chesapeake Bay oysters are in trouble. Years of over-harvesting, disease and poor water quality have decimated populations to the point where their numbers are just one percent of historic levels.
Over the years several different methods have been developed to assist in the rehabilitation of the oyster population. While many of these methods have been successful, recent experiments performed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and Virginia's oyster industry demonstrate that “spat-on-shell” oyster production may become a viable and effective process for growing healthy and harvestable oysters in Virginia waters.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) has been utilizing spat-on-shell oyster restoration techniques in the Bay since the mid-1960s. Last year, the UMCES facility produced more than 350 million spat-on-shell, of which 325 million were used in Bay restoration. In 2006, the second year of spat-on-shell programs in Virginia, 25 million spat were produced.
In order to reach maturity, spat need to attach to a solid surface. While rocks and other underwater debris are suitable for oyster growth, spat have higher success rates growing upon other oyster shells.
Using carefully engineered aquaculture procedures, spat are cultured in specialized tanks and allowed to “set” onto oyster shells, or cultch. In a few months the spat, numbering about a dozen per shell, will have grown into tiny oysters no larger than a fingernail. The advantages of growing clusters of oysters together rather than raising and planting single cultures are threefold:
VIMS, VMRC and volunteers from Virginia's oyster industry placed 18 sets of spat-on-shell oysters in Virginia waters between July and October of 2006. Locations for the sets varied widely, with sites in Pungoteague Creek and the Coan, Piankatank, Rappahannock and Ware rivers. Set sizes also varied from as little as 127,000 to as many as 3.6 million.
Results so far have been promising with survival rates ranging from 17 to 98 percent. While these numbers are heartening, spat-on-shell production projects should not be viewed as the silver bullet that will solve all of the oyster's woes, but they may be able to help the Virginia oyster populations rebound to higher levels. To find out more about oyster restoration in Virginia, please visit: http://www.vims.edu/.