Sunday, November 22, 2020

Oysters Get $10 Million

Governor Ralph Northam visited the Elizabeth River Project’s Learning Barge last week to celebrate the restoration of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River and announced $10 million in new funding to support future oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. This is first time that capital funds from the Commonwealth have been explicitly used to restore Virginia’s natural resources. This is a big step towards restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Today, watermen harvest both hard clams and oysters from the Commonwealth’s waters, though volumes of clams and oyster are diminished from historic levels. In 2017 the total number of shellfish from Virginia was 53.4 million: 37.5 million Hard Clams and 15.9 million Oysters. In the 1850s, more than 150 million oysters were harvested from the Bay each year; three decades later, this number jumped to 2,000 million. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Bay’s oyster fishery was one of the most important in the United States.

However, over-harvesting, disease and habitat loss have led to a severe drop in oyster populations. Scientists are working to manage harvests, establish sanctuaries, overcome the effects of disease and restore reefs with hatchery-raised seed in an effort to bring back the oyster.

“Virginia has made tremendous progress in improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, reviving oyster habitats, and building a legacy of environmental stewardship,” said Governor Northam. “This investment is a recognition that our natural assets are just as important as roads and buildings. The new funding stream that I proposed and the General Assembly adopted in our state budget will ensure that we can meet our restoration goals and achieve a clean and healthy Bay for the benefit of our communities, our economy, and our ecosystems.”

Oysters are the Chesapeake Bay's best natural filters. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Oysters also provide essential habitat for fish and other Bay creatures. The eastern oyster is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay. For more than a century, oysters  made up one of the region’s most valuable commercial fisheries, and the oysters which are filter-feeders continues to clean our waters and offer food and habitat to other animals.

In 2010, Maryland and Virginia embarked on a tributary-based restoration strategy that will build, seed and monitor reefs in several Maryland and Virginia waterways. This commitment was incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay restoration blueprint. The effort to restore native oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay is one of the largest and most aggressive in the world, Virginia and its partners committed to restoring native oyster populations in 10 tributaries by 2025. Since then, Virginia has restored 240.5 acres of native oyster habitat building on earlier restoration of 473 acres. This restoration work has vastly improved water quality and generated billions of baby oysters in the Bay.

 Over the summer, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission deployed 10,500 tons of rock and 100,000 bushels of shell to restore 21 acres of oyster habitat in the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River. This oyster restoration work is the result of a partnership between the Elizabeth River Project and Virginia Marine Resource Commission, with funding from a Superfund settlement from Atlantic Wood Industries.

 The completion of this project marks the second of six tributaries that have been restored as part of Virginia’s commitments to improve the health of the Bay. The restoration of the Lafayette River was completed in 2019 and work in the Lynnhaven River is ongoing. This $10 million investment will support efforts to create and restore oyster habitat in the Piankatank, Great Wicomico, and York Rivers.

Over the past century, the Chesapeake Bay watershed has changed as urban, suburban and agricultural areas have replaced forested lands and then urban and suburban replaced agriculture. This has increased the amount of nutrients and sediment entering our rivers and streams and contributed to the poor water quality that affects the oysters and all aquatic life. Excess nutrients of nitrogen and phosphorus fuel the growth of algae blooms that create low-oxygen “dead zones” that hinder the development of oyster larvae; sediment that washes off of roads and fields can suffocate oysters and other shellfish. Stress related to poor water quality can make oysters more susceptible to disease, and yet oysters filter water and contribute to the health of the Bay. To restore the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia needs to restore the oysters.


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