NOAA and partners working together on oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay are striving toward a challenging, but possible, goal. They plan to restore oyster reefs in 10 Chesapeake rivers by 2025. In 2020, the pandemic and protocols put in place to keep NOAA and partner scientists and experts safe as they worked threatened to delay progress. But despite some initial setbacks, the team conducted work when safe and possible. And that led to some big achievements!
Reaching the Finish Line—Twice!
In the Little Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, restoration work was completed in late summer. Nearly 88 million oyster “seed”—juvenile oysters—were planted in the river last year, bringing the total in the Little Choptank to 1.78 billion. And restoration work on almost 7 acres wrapped up, driving the project through the finish line. The Little Choptank River is now home to roughly 358 acres of restored reefs—larger than the National Mall in Washington, D.C. That tops the size of the previous world record largest oyster restoration project the team set in Harris Creek (348 acres).
In Virginia, the overall restoration effort got an extra boost (pdf, 7 pages). Partners there completed restoration work in the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk. This project is a bonus: it is considered the 11th tributary toward the 10 tributaries goal.
Reef Restoration by the Numbers
In 2020 alone, the team restored more than 85 acres of oyster reefs and planted nearly 164 million juvenile oysters in Maryland and Virginia. That brings the total restored by NOAA and partners as part of this collaborative effort to nearly 5 billion juvenile oysters and 1,095 acres. That’s 828 football fields of healthy habitat, natural water filtration, and enhanced fishing opportunities for people.
Another big number: $10 million. That’s how much Virginia has set aside for future oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. This is the first time that Virginia has decided to use capital funds, which are usually used for infrastructure projects, to restore Virginia’s natural resources.
These restoration projects are getting good marks: A whopping 95 percent of reefs surveyed in Maryland last year met a key criteria for success. In Maryland, each restored reef is monitored at three years and again at six years after its restoration is completed. That lets experts track the health of each reef and success of each tributary. The 2019 Maryland Oyster Monitoring Report (pdf, 76 pages) provides an update on reefs where restoration has been finished. Results are included for 53 three-year-old restored reefs (171.73 acres) and 31 six-year-old restored reefs (92.18 acres). Of these reefs, 95 percent had at least 15 oysters per square meter. In Virginia, many reefs are being monitored by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other organizations
One other number is music to our ears: 10 restoration blueprints have been developed! That means that detailed plans for how and where restoration will happen are complete for all of the tributaries where this large-scale restoration will take place. This work has been in progress since 2011. In 2020, plans were completed for the final three tributaries: Maryland’s St. Mary’s and Manokin Rivers and Virginia’s Great Wicomico River. Development of each plan includes habitat survey and analysis work as well as collaboration among the partners to make decisions and develop the specifics in each document.
In Maryland, efforts to bring more oysters to the Bay got a boost from nature. The spat set—the oyster larvae that settle on hard substrate to grow into oysters—was above the 36-year average along the Eastern Shore from the Choptank River to areas south. Numbers varied from river to river, but some tributaries in the Tangier Sound and Choptank regions averaged an impressive more than 250 spat per bushel. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources' upcoming fall 2020 survey report will have more details.
What does all this work mean? Oysters help clean the water as they filter feed, and they provide important habitat for many Chesapeake species. Having more, healthy oysters and reefs in the Bay benefits wildlife—and people.