Gary Rosso of Norfolk, Va., has lived all his life on the Lafayette River. Standing on his dock on a hot summer morning, the 71-year-old with curly gray hair remembered water-skiing a lot in his teenage days, and recalled how bad the river was.
“Back when I was young they had a lot of pollution signs all around the river,” he said. “Being a kid you swim in the river anyway.”
One thing Rosso wouldn’t be able to remember, however, is the last oyster harvest on the Lafayette.
“The city has plots of where oyster beds were, but they stopped oystering before I was born,” Rosso said.
As a sign of days gone by, Rosso said he can still point out a disconnected sewage pipe from an old farmhouse nearby that fed straight into the river.
The Lafayette is a tributary of the Elizabeth River that is completely contained by the City of Norfolk. Issues with bacteria caused by wastewater and runoff shuttered the local oyster industry in 1934, plaguing the Lafayette with unhealthy waters for decades. A dramatic restoration is now bringing back wildlife habitat, protecting shorelines from erosion and helping the river become safe by meeting standards for recreational contact set by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
The restoration is reaching its latest milestone as the Lafayette becomes the first Chesapeake Bay tributary in Virginia to meet its prescribed level of oyster habitat determined by Bay scientists to sustain the health of the river into the future. A five-acre reef to be built by two nonprofits, the Elizabeth River Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, will put the Lafayette over its goal of 80 acres of reef.
To finish the reef, the Elizabeth River Project and Chesapeake Bay Foundation were recently awarded Small Watershed Grants for roughly $200,000 each by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which works in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Program. This follows multiple Small Watershed Grants benefitting the Lafayette and Elizabeth Rivers, such as one for Elizabeth River Project’s River Star program, and another awarded to Chesapeake Bay Foundation that in 2011 resulted in a community-wide restoration plan for the Lafayette, led by the two organizations.
The Elizabeth River Project has completed 11 oyster reefs to date in the Lafayette. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has seeded those reefs with 40 million baby oysters—known as spat—and installed 875 concrete reef balls that replicate the structure of a mature reef.
Other partners, including the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Norfolk and the Rotary Club of Norfolk contributed a total of 25 acres of restored reef to the 80-acre goal. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has funded reef construction and provided needed science by mapping the river bottom to guide siting of reefs.
“The Bay can learn a lot from what we’ve done here, both at a scale level—the type of scale we’re restoring—and also methods that are being used that are innovative to save cost of these projects and also provide the best habitat possible for the Bay,” said Joe Rieger, deputy director of restoration at the Elizabeth River Project.
Rieger and Elizabeth River Project’s environmental projects manager David Koubsky took a boat to visit the site of a one-acre reef near the mouth of the Lafayette, where they employed a more complex technique than older reefs they have built.
“In the past we would have placed crushed concrete and shell across all one acre,” Rieger said.
Instead, they built “stripes” of rock interspersed with rows of reef balls, leaving sandy gaps in between. The idea is that the spaces will fill in with oysters over time.
“It’ll be a good place for not only oysters but fish to hang out and anglers to come and fish,” Rieger said.
One of the surprises during the restoration effort was the discovery of 48 acres of relict reef on either side of the navigation channel dredged in the middle of the Lafayette. These reefs have not been harvested in decades, allowing the oysters to become some of the biggest in the Chesapeake Bay.
“At this location we found probably one of the largest oysters; it was about a seven to eight-inch oyster off this point,” Rieger said, standing in shallow water near a grassy shoreline at the edge of Rosso’s property.
Homeowners get involved
Rieger worked with Rosso to build an additional 0.6-acre reef just off his shoreline in the spring of 2016. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has since documented successful oyster recruitment on the reef.
“Believe it or not, homeowners can do projects like this or smaller projects in their backyard,” Rieger said.
Rosso shared his mindset when Elizabeth River Project approached him about building a reef.
“I had read about how an oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day,” Rosso said. “And seeing the river the way it’s been since I was born, I would love to have the river pristine one of these days. I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime, but it would be nice for future generations.”
For his reef he just requested that it leave room to get to his dock.
“I know you sacrifice a little bit of water when you add the oyster reefs, but it’s not much,” Rosso said.
Rieger and Elizabeth River Project’s environmental projects manager David Koubsky visited another homeowner, Marie Jensen. Compared with Rosso she is a newcomer, having lived on the Lafayette only 20 years. She said that the one-acre reef near her property has helped protect her shoreline from erosion during storms, and supports more wildlife .
“Especially now with the reef here, I’m pretty much up close and personal with all the egrets and the herons that come and feed,” Jensen said.
She ticked off past sightings of dolphin, osprey, cobia and pelicans.
Another important characteristic will ensure that benefits of Jensen’s reef will last into the future. What was once bare stone bottom and reef balls is now a layer of oysters growing upwards into the water column.
“You can see now how visible the shells are out of the water,” Jensen said, gesturing with a tan arm toward the reef at low tide. Stretches of exposed oysters sporadically clasped closed to save their moisture, squirting water into the air.
Rieger said a number of publications have shown that by growing upwards, oysters can keep up with sea level rise.
“Norfolk has the second largest population per capita, outside of New Orleans, that will be impacted by sea level rise in the United States,” Rieger said. “From a habitat standpoint, oyster reefs can adapt to that.”
Before leaving her property and hopping back into their boat, Rieger and Koubsky thanked Jensen for partnering with Elizabeth River Project on the oyster reef.
“It’s really rare out here to find that hard bottom and for you to participate—that’s really what made it happen,” Koubsky said. “It couldn’t have happened without you.”
Nearby, a yellow-crowned night heron waded among the shellfish, hunting for crustaceans as the tide slowly rose.
View more photos of oyster restoration on the Lafayette River.