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Future beginning to look brighter for Chesapeake's native oysters
Action! Notes from the Director's Chair / By Rebecca Hanmer - Bay Journal

Peer into the cold waters at the mouth of the Rappahannock River during these winter months and, with some luck, you’ll see a sweet sight that has delighted epicures for centuries—Crassostrea virginica, better known as our native Chesapeake oyster. And if you look even harder, you might find yourself gazing at the future of the Bay, not simply a remnant of its former glory.

Oysters are an essential part of the history, culture and economy of the Bay. Their water-filtering capacity is legendary. A single adult oyster can cleanse as much as 60 gallons of water a day.

Their fate also makes them a good symbol of all the troubles that have beset the Chesapeake. Today, oyster levels are just a few percent of their historic abundance.

Poor water quality, fueled by too much nitrogen and phosphorus, is a problem compounded by a dramatic loss of habitat. The overharvesting of oysters and destruction of their habitat—the oyster reef—is emblematic of similar fates met by a number of fish and waterfowl species. To make things worse, oysters have been decimated by diseases that were inadvertently introduced by man.

That’s a pretty depressing picture. But like a growing number in the Chesapeake region, I can see a glimmer of hope in those Rappahannock waters and the oysters they hold.

Not long ago, the prospects for the native Chesapeake oyster were so dire that some people have looked at the possibility of introducing a nonnative species of oyster. The proposal sparked a heated debate, and not just because one of those devastating diseases had arrived with another nonnative oyster that had been introduced—for the same reasons—decades earlier.

To help sort out the facts from the cross-currents of hype and fear, the Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk began a rigorous Environmental Impact Statement process in conjunction with the states of Virginia and Maryland and with the cooperation of several other agencies.

The environmental review is looking at the full range of reasonable alternatives. A document outlining the alternatives is expected this summer, although it is likely to be incomplete pending the conclusion of several ongoing research studies. By taking a careful look at all oyster options, though, researchers have forced all of us to take a second look at the Chesapeake’s native oyster.

The lower Rappahannock holds a large area of protected oyster habitat. It was part of Virginia’s efforts a decade ago to construct oyster reefs where these natural structures once dominated the aquatic environment. Many of the restoration efforts have had limited success, but the Rappahannock and a handful of other sites suggest that restoration efforts can be successful.

A similar but more surprising success story showed up recently in the Lynnhaven River. This tributary along the southern boundary of the Bay, in an area of high salinity and high disease exposure, has yielded a small bounty of large, healthy oysters that were discovered quite by accident by researchers investigating a nearby area. Other small-scale success stories dot the Bay and its tributaries as far north as the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

All of these sites have something in common—large, healthy native oysters that seem to be thriving in locations that have been the scene of major oyster losses previously. Clearly, these oysters are located in areas with the requisite water quality and hard- bottom habitat. Equally obvious is the fact that these oysters are doing a better job than most of their cousins in resisting the parasites that typically kill native oysters. With good water quality, appropriate habitat, a resistance to disease, and protection from harvest, these oysters are thriving.

Because we have lost so many oysters and their habitat, there is not enough remaining native stock to repopulate the Bay. That’s where the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, MD, comes in. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s researchers there have cultured more than 250 million native oysters in 2006.

The juvenile “seed” oysters are being grown for restoration at 20 sites across the Chesapeake Bay. With a modest boost in funding, the lab says it can produce more than a billion oysters annually.

The mouth of the Rappahannock and scores of other locations in the Bay were once home to oyster reefs. Oysters naturally grow in these formations, much like coral does in the tropical seas. Adult shells serve as the hard surfaces that young oysters can attach to.

As they grow up into the water column, these reefs are exposed to maximum water circulation, which brings microscopic algae to feed the oysters while the whole reef serves as habitat for scores of other Bay species.

Federal and state natural resource agencies are conducting a series of management actions aimed at restoration. Cleaning old reefs of smothering sediment, reseeding reefs with fresh seed oysters and putting down old shells or artificial reef substrates are just some of the restoration activities under way.

In all, scientists have worked or reworked 6,000 acres of oyster reefs in recent years. Early hopes gave way to frustration when these experimental efforts failed to yield immediate results.

But each year has brought a new understanding of how best to mimic Mother Nature’s designs, and the results today give renewed impetus to these efforts.

An equally exciting development is coming from an unlikely source: aquaculture. Generally, scientists and the environmental community have been leery of aquaculture efforts because they are often associated with huge amounts of waste and can be breeding grounds for disease and infection in the severely confined fish populations.

They are also a worry because nonnative species can escape into the wild where they compete with native species. Native oyster aquaculture, though, poses few of those problems. In fact, just like in natural reefs, aquaculture oysters feed on the free-floating microscopic algae in the water, cleansing the water column and generally improving water quality.

Efforts by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Aquaculture Program, with a strong assist from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, suggest that native oyster aquaculture can be profitable.

Operations are modest in size and number, but success has attracted the attention of commercial growers. In fact, in 2007, Virginia’s commercial growers will put out 30 million sterile native oysters, bred for rapid growth and disease resistance. The commercial yield of those oysters in 2008 is expected to be double the amount of oysters harvested by traditional methods.

This month, I will retire as director of the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program. After my last day, I will drive from Annapolis down to my home in Fredericksburg, VA, and as I drive over the Rappahannock, I will be thinking of those oysters.

It has taken many lifetimes for the Bay’s oyster population to reach its nadir. But our slow but steady progress in controlling pollution is gradually restoring water quality to the Bay. With this new generation of oyster restoration efforts, coupled with sensible, stringent harvest restrictions, we might be seeing the first signs of a return of one of our signature species. And wouldn’t that be a sweet conclusion to a 40-year career dedicated to environmental protection and restoration?

Rebecca Hanmer is the director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Future beginning to look brighter for Chesapeake's native oysters
Article - Bay Journal
March 2007

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