Once among the Chesapeake Bay’s filthiest tributaries, the Lafayette River has become the first Virginia waterway to have its oyster habitat declared fully restored.People aboard canoes and kayaks hold aloft baby oysters moments before receiving the signal to drop them into the water and onto a restored oyster reef in Virginia's Lafayette River. (Dave Harp)

“We’ve done it. Feel proud,” Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of the Elizabeth River Project, told a cheering crowd during an October ceremony celebrating the milestone. The Lafayette flows into the Elizabeth River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay near its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean.

The effort, led by her group and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “pretty much re-invented oyster restoration,” Jackson said, as it constructed 12 new reefs over eight years. Workers created 32 acres of habitat that, when combined with “historic reefs” discovered while the project was in progress, satisfied the campaign’s 80-acre goal set by scientists.

The Lafayette is the first waterway in Virginia to count toward the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which calls for oyster reefs to be restored in five tributaries in Maryland and five in Virginia by 2025. Each state has now completed one.

Still to go in Virginia: the Lynnhaven River, the Piankatank River, the Lower York River and Great Wicomico River. (Rieger said his group and partners also aim to forge ahead with restoration work already begun on the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, even though it’s not been officially selected as one of the state’s five targeted rivers, and thus won’t likely be in line to receive significant government funding.)

The Lafayette project’s architects said its impact will reverberate beyond the river’s 14-square-mile watershed. Their methods and materials evolved over time, transforming the river, which lies entirely inside the city of Norfolk, into a testing ground for oyster restoration, they said.

Funding for the multimillion dollar restoration came from multiple sources, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, among others.

Oysters act like filters, removing nutrients that fuel harmful algae blooms and sediment that block sunlight from underwater grass beds. The reefs where oysters grow help to shield shorelines from erosion while providing habitat for fish, crabs and other marine life. 

Early monitoring results suggest the effort is already paying dividends, scientists said. Biological surveys on the river are showing greater diversity of aquatic life, including at least 25 different species of fish, such as sea horses, red drum, striped bass and speckled trout, according to the Bay Foundation.

The restoration added 70 million baby oysters, or spat, to the river bottom. Regular surveys show they are thriving, exceeding the density goal of 50 oysters per square meter along several of the reefs, officials said. At the Granby Street bridge, for instance, a total of 118 oysters per square meter were counted last year.

The turnaround has impressed many observers.

“I put a challenge down to all of the cities and towns along the Chesapeake Bay — if you can do this in Norfolk, VA, you can do this anywhere,” said Andria McClellan, a member of the Norfolk City Council and the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee. 

The environmental odds have long been stacked against the Lafayette River. About 40 percent of Norfolk’s population lives inside its watershed, leaving little room for natural buffers to absorb and filter stormwater. 

During the early 20th century, pipes carried raw sewage directly into the river. More than a century of shipbuilding and other industrial activities fouled the bottom sediments with polychlorinated biphenyls. Exposure to PCBs has been linked to liver damage, cancer and other health problems, leading to a national ban in 1979.

The oyster industry was shut down on the river in the 1920s because of its sewage and polluted stormwater runoff. 

“A lot of people thought restoration was hopeless,” said Jackie Shannon, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia oyster restoration program manager. “It still has a stigma around here.”

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission banned harvesting oysters from the restored reefs in the Lafayette a few years ago, but the agency could allow aquaculture in the future if the water quality continues to improve, Shannon said.

Dozens of people plied the water on that sunny October day aboard a rainbow of canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. At the signal — a few short horn blasts from the Bay Foundation’s workboat, the Baywatcher — the crowd poured a cascade of oyster spats into the river.

The 2,500 spats settled on a 5-acre reef a few dozen yards from the lush shoreline at the Hermitage Museum and Gardens. Afterward, the group of residents, politicians, scientists and nonprofit professionals gathered on the museum’s grounds for an oyster roast and locally brewed beer.

One after another, speakers praised the river’s neighbors for their support. The Elizabeth River Project has recruited thousands of homeowners, for example, into its River Star Homes program. Participants agree to protect the river on their properties by taking steps such as reducing lawn fertilization and bagging pet waste. Many have planted “oyster gardens” in the waters beyond their lawns to create more habitat.

Michael Berg, who lives about a block from the Lafayette tributary Haven Creek, was an early registrant. The retired schoolteacher has collected oyster shells from restaurants, designed a floating wetlands prototype and poured scores of concrete blocks to create starter reefs.

“I like doing the physical work, and it’s exciting work,” said Berg, 73. “The truth of the matter is I’m a wannabe biologist.”

Oyster restoration efforts in the Lafayette River date back to 1998, when the Rotary Club of Norfolk funded the construction of two reefs. But it didn’t kick into high gear until 2009, when the Bay Foundation and Elizabeth River Project teamed up to develop a broad restoration plan.

A survey of the river showed 140 acres of sandy bottom suitable for planting oysters, Shannon said. Their target was to restore half of that total, but the scientists added another 10 acres to the goal — for a total of 80 acres — to provide a cushion.

Ironically, the river’s contamination provided a near-ideal setting for an oyster comeback, said Joe Rieger, deputy director of restoration for the Elizabeth River Project. 

“No one was harvesting oysters, so it was naturally protected,” he said.

That set the stage for a pleasant surprise: In 2014, researchers with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Christopher Newport University found 48 acres of relict reefs teeming with oysters. If not for the discovery, the Lafayette’s restoration would have continued for another decade, scientists say.

As the work progressed, the river became a kind of living laboratory, Rieger said. Facing a shortage of recycled shells, the groups turned to granite and later crushed concrete to serve as shellfish homes. 

They also began laying the rocky material in strips along the river bottom instead of unbroken mounds. That gives young oysters more surface area on which to attach themselves, he said. And it allowed the groups to claim credit for more restored acreage while using less substrate.

Shannon, with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she and other scientists are now moving on to the next phase in the restoration: monitoring. Over the next six years, they will determine whether the new reefs continue to thrive.

“We’re not going to walk away and let this good work slip through our fingers,” she said.