Massive oyster restoration heartens Bay coalition
Work has begun on what will be the largest restocking effort with disease-resistant shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay.
Officials think their latest idea may hold the key to restoring the ecologically and economically important bivalve.
“We‘re very optimistic,” said Doug Martin, project coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading a coalition of federal, state and private partners to jump-start the oyster population in Virginia’s Great Wicomico River.
In mid-March, Martin hosted a boat tour of the oyster grounds as an initial 339,000 specially bred native oysters were dumped into the river. Plans call for releasing a total of 15 million oysters by the end of April.
If all goes as Martin plans, the oysters will reproduce this summer and cover the bottom of the Great Wicomico with baby oysters called spat.
“We think we’re going to get a spat set that this river hasn’t seen in decades,” Martin said.
Along the tidal river, which empties into the Bay near Reedville, abandoned oyster shucking houses stand dark and empty. Disease-causing parasites, MSX and Dermo, have been decimating Chesapeake Bay oysters since the mid-1980s.
Today’s Bay oyster population is an estimated 1 percent of former times. It can no longer support a thriving oyster industry nor provide an ecological role by filtering nutrients that now afflict the Bay with annual fish kills and oxygen-deprived “dead zones.”
Virginia and Maryland are also interested in the potential of a nonnative oyster from Asia. The Virginia Seafood Council has proposed an experiment to begin in June to see if they can grow 1 million sterile C. ariakensis oysters to market size in less than a year in a range of salinities. The states are also considering a more controversial move to introduce breeding population of the oyster into the Bay.
“We certainly hope this brings native oysters back to the Great Wicomico,” said Paula Jasinski, the Virginia coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office.
NOAA funding is helping to support the project, which has cost at least $2.5 million to get this far. The partners spent $500,000 for the 15 million oysters. They also spent $2 million last year to prepare shell beds where the oysters will be stocked, as well as 60 acres of shelled bottom that is supposed to capture their disease-resistant offspring.
If the oysters reproduce and their spat survive, they would “jump-start” a population in the river that should be vigorous enough to sustain itself in the face of disease, Martin said.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission have tried relatively small stockings of a million or so disease-resistant oysters before. Those efforts have shown signs of success when large numbers of oysters were placed in small systems.
But projects in larger areas have often failed because they lacked the “critical mass,” Martin said, to make a biological difference. By combining efforts of multiple agencies, the goal is show that huge numbers of oysters can make a difference in a larger system.
“When in the past have we been able to put out 15 million oysters on a reef before?” said Stan Allen, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science oyster researcher whose selective-breeding program has produced several disease-resistant oyster lines.
The partners—which also include the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—hope this will be the first of a five-year trial on the Great Wicomico to test their stocking theory. If they succeed in the river, they say they could expand their efforts elsewhere in the Bay.
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