In "Draft Bay strategy outlines plans for clean water, restoration, climate change" [December 2009], the director of EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office advocated eight "federal initiatives that address the challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed." One of the initiatives is that "[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Army Corps of Engineers] will lead a revitalized endeavor to recover oyster reefs and establish self-sustaining oyster sanctuaries by 2020."

There is a better way to improve oyster populations in the Bay than constructing a few reef sanctuaries and making them off-limits for harvesting. If watermen could bring clean shell to a hatchery and get spat-on-shell in return at no or very low cost, they could then plant the shell on their oyster grounds and harvest it (by tonging, not dredging). This strategy has many more advantages for oyster restoration than the construction of a few expensive sanctuary reefs for these reasons:

  • Jobs would be created and a marketable product produced.
  • Oysters and the larvae they produce would be much more widely distributed in space than is possible with a limited number of sanctuary reefs. The wide distribution of oysters would make it more difficult for cow-nosed rays to prey on them than would be true of a few isolated sanctuary reefs.
  • A great many more oysters would be put in the water.
  • Hatchery-produced spat would provide the opportunity to test new oyster strains as they are developed for improved disease-resistance and/or growth rate.
  • Oyster grounds would be worked more, exposing shell and creating habitat for oysters and other filter-feeding organisms to colonize.
  • Oyster shell is a valuable and relatively expensive resource. Any shell placed in the water without attached spat is unlikely to attract strike because of rapid fouling by biofilms (See "Gaak! The Bay's oyster spat are being slimed, and it's not funny" [January 2008]), and is a wasted resource. To build tall reefs - the only ones shown to be effective -most of the shell is wasted unless it is just a veneer over some other substrate.
  • The construction of sanctuary reefs is extremely expensive. The Corps constructed about 80 acres of reef habitat and seeded it with 15 million oysters in 2003 in the Great Wicomico River at a cost of about $4 million. A study by the Northern Neck Planning District Commission estimated a (Cadillac) hatchery would cost about that much, and about $800,000 each year to operate. The hatchery would produce several billion larvae per year and many millions of seed for the half-shell trade.
  • Sanctuary reefs have not been demonstrated to be sustainable, and neither NOAA nor the Corps can make them so. If the rate of oyster strike is so low as not to maintain the oyster population on the reef, or disease outpaces recruitment, the structure is destined to disappear in a decade or so, and would have been a complete waste of money. To quote Paula Jasinski of NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office: "It's very early in the game to call this a success."

Hatcheries producing spat-on-shell and seed oysters should be given priority over the construction of more sanctuary reefs.