Oysters are getting another new home in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, as construction began last week in Virginia’s Piankatank River on 15 acres of artificial reef made of crushed granite.Stephanie Westby of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration dumps a basket of recycled oyster shells pre-seeded with spat into the Piankatank River. Shells collected from Virginia restaurants and consumers are used to restore reef habitat under a program coordinated by Virginia Commonwealth University. Though Virginia waters generally have good natural oyster reproduction, the spat on shell being placed in the upper Piantanak will help jump-start a new shellfish population. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

Under mostly sunny skies on Tuesday, the Capt. Ellery, a boat owned by the W.E. Kellum seafood company in Weems, cruised slowly back and forth at a designated spot in the river while water cannon in its stern sprayed a heaping mound of golf ball-size stones overboard. They will provide a fresh substrate, or hard surface, on the river bottom, where newly hatched oyster spat can settle and grow.

The 24-mile long Piankatank, tucked between the Rappahannock and York rivers, is one of five Bay tributaries in Virginia that the state, federal agencies and others have targeted for large-scale efforts to restore the Chesapeake’s once-bountiful oyster population. Five of Maryland’s tributaries also have been selected for similar efforts, but federal funding for reef construction there has dried up.

Oyster restoration continues in Virginia, though, with money from a variety of sources. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which this year received state funding for restoration for the first time, has teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to build these 15 acres.

The new reefs, to be built in four sites, are upriver of a 25-acre reef constructed last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District. That reef was built with large granite boulders, shipped in by barge and offloaded by a crane, at a cost of $2 million.

The latest construction with much smaller stone is estimated to cost a fraction of last year’s project — about $200,000, with the state and conservancy splitting the tab.

“It’s a lot less expensive than some projects we’ve done,” said Andy Lacatell, conservation specialist with The Nature Conservancy.

These reefs are being built farther upriver in a less “dynamic” area, Lacatell explained, where currents are not as strong, so there’s no need for such heavy-duty oyster habitat. Plans are to deposit a 6– to 8-inch layer over the bottom. The 100 tons deposited on Tuesday are just the first installment of what is to be a total of 3,750 tons of granite.

Once home to about 7,000 acres of oyster reefs in the 1890s, the Piankatank — like the rest of the Bay — lost all but a fraction of its shellfish habitat to disease, overharvesting and natural degradation. Today, it hosts about 250 acres, including 50 acres restored since 2014 by the Corps and the conservancy, and other reefs restored even earlier by the state. With the amount of viable oyster bottom left much reduced, the goal is to add another 175 acres of reef, Lacatell said.

But the Army Corps has run out of funds to continue reef construction in the Piankatank, so for now, at least, the effort will have to be carried on by others.

Water cannon aboard the Capt. Ellery, a boat owned by the W.E. Kellum seafood company, spray crushed granite overboard into the Piankatank River in Virginia. The golfball-size stones will form a 6- to 8-inch layer over 15 acres of river bottom to provide substrate on which oyster spat can settle and grow. (Timothy B. Wheeler)“We have 175 acres to go,” Lacatell noted. “We want to be as cost-effective as we can.”

If left alone, oysters would build their own reefs, as newly hatched spat settle and grow on the shells of their predecessors. Centuries of harvesting shellfish and disease mortality, though, have undercut that natural regeneration.

The seafood industry and the state do what they can to replenish the supply of substrate by using the shells of at least some oysters harvested for consumption and by dredging up buried shell from ancient reefs. But to date, there hasn’t been enough shell from those sources to replenish all of the reefs being actively harvested, much less supply material to build new reefs that would restore lost habitat.

So, for several years now, Virginia has been using granite and even crushed concrete to build reefs, mainly in sanctuary areas where no harvest is permitted, as is the case in the Piankatank.

Granite has also been used to build reefs as part of restoration efforts in Maryland’s Harris Creek and the Tred Avon River. The state’s watermen have asserted that oyster shells are the only suitable substrate for Bay reefs, but a review by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Bay office concluded that, in most cases, granite does as well as oyster shells — and often better — in getting spat to settle and grow.

“What I’ve seen of those reefs is stunning,” NOAA’s Stephanie Westby said of the granite reefs built earlier in the Piankatank. “The stone material ... really works.”

The Piankatank, like several of Virginia’s Bay tributaries, generally experiences decent natural oyster reproduction, so restored reefs can usually count on getting spat to settle on them from spawning oysters elsewhere in the river.

The reefs begun last week are getting a kick-start, though, with about 300 bushels of spat set in tanks on oyster shells, part of an effort run by Virginia Commonwealth University to recycle shells for return to the Bay. The first installment — about a dozen bushels of spat-seeded shells — got dumped overboard Tuesday from a boat carrying state and federal officials, representatives of the conservancy and VCU, as well as a bevy of reporters and photographers.

Oyster restoration work is nearing completion in another Virginia tributary, the Lafayette River in Norfolk, where two conservation groups, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Elizabeth River Project, are to seed five acres of newly built reef with hatchery-bred spat on shell planning later this summer. That is expected to complete the 80-acre goal for that waterway.

Reef construction is already complete in Maryland’s Harris Creek — the largest restoration effort in the Bay, with 350 acres of reef constructed — and in the Little Choptank River, where the state Department of Natural Resources scaled back the restoration plan and limited the need for more reefs.

But work in the Tred Avon River, which had been federally funded, has ground to a halt, because there has been no new funding for Bay oyster restoration approved in the Corps’ budget for three years. The Army Corps leadership also declined pleas to allocate some of its discretionary funding to the effort.

That could affect the completion of oyster restoration planned for at least one of the other two Maryland tributaries recently selected by the state – Breton Bay, which DNR officials had hoped would be handled by the Baltimore District of the Corps.

With federal oyster restoration funding in doubt, the outlook for completing work in Virginia’s other targeted tributaries — the Piankatank, Lynnhaven, lower York and Great Wicomico rivers — is similarly cloudy at the moment.

But in one bright spot, at least some federally funded reef work is on tap for the Lynnhaven in Virginia Beach, though for a slightly different purpose.

The Army Corps headquarters recently allocated $10 million under its fiscal 2018 work plan to carry out a broader ecological restoration plan for the Lynnhaven, which includes restoration of wetlands and submerged vegetation, as well as reef habitat. That represents a down payment on a project expected to cost $38 million — but it should be enough to build 8 acres of reefs, along with 9 acres of wetlands and 7 acres of underwater grass meadow.

“Ecosystem restoration isn’t necessarily the top priority for funding right now,” said Susan L. Conner, chief of the Norfolk District’s planning and policy branch. “To get new-start construction funding is a big deal.” Work should begin there “within the next year or two,” she said.