They say it takes a village to raise a child. When it comes to oysters, it takes several CBF scientists, four partner groups, a bunch of hearty volunteers, and on Tuesday of this week the U.S. Coast Guard, to raise a million baby oysters and send them on their way to the Chesapeake Bay.
It was all part of an effort to restore native Chesapeake oysters to Virginia’s Piankatank River, a Bay
tributary wedged between the Rappahannock and York rivers on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. Historically, the Piankatank (Pee-YANK-a-TANK) has been one of the Bay’s most fecund rivers, producing millions and millions of baby “seed” oysters for the commercial oyster industry.
Not so in recent years, however. Decades of overharvesting, pollution, and disease had reduced the river’s oyster population to record low levels by 2006.That’s when the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and began a serious effort to restore oysters to the river.
In a nutshell (or oyster shell), here’s the process: VMRC piles oyster shells on the river bottom to create new, manmade reefs where natural oyster reefs once flourished; CBF then repeatedly “carpet bombs” these shell piles with millions of baby oysters over the course of several years in an effort to create a thriving colony on the reef.
The hope is enough of the oysters will survive, mature, and reproduce until the reefs are self-sustaining and the river is repopulated with shellfish. The Piankatank is what’s called a trap estuary, a river whose circular water flow tends to trap and keep floating objects, such as microscopic baby oysters, in the river. So if the river’s rebuilt oyster reefs can be coaxed into regularly spawning, their offspring should quickly settle on and repopulate nearby public oyster grounds, making the river a commercial oystering mecca once again. All those oysters will also help filter and clean the water in the river.
But the challenges are many – voracious cow nose rays that love to eat young oysters; omnipresent oyster diseases that tend to kill less hearty oysters before they’re old enough to spawn; mild winters that seem to make the diseases more virulent; boring sponges that degrade the shell piles; and shortages of money, shells, and manpower to consistently stock the reefs on a sufficiently large scale for success.
This week, CBF Virginia Oyster Restoration and Fisheries Scientist Tommy Leggett and Oyster Restoration Specialists Jackie Shannon and Laura Engelund readied a million baby oysters for their part in the saga. First, they led groups of hard-working volunteers in washing and bagging thousands of oyster shells donated by local restaurants and raw bars as part of CBF’s Save Oyster Shell (SOS) program.
Next they stacked the mesh bags of shells into large tanks beside the York River on VIMS’s Gloucester Point campus. The tanks were then flooded with water teeming with millions of hatchery-produced, microscopic oyster larvae. In just a few days, the tiny oysters settle and attach themselves onto the shells in the bags, becoming “spat on shell.” On average, about 11 spat attach to each shell.
On Tuesday, crewmen from the Milford Haven Coast Guard Station at the mouth of the Piankatank lent a hand – actually many hands and two boats, one of which was a 55-foot buoy tender. Chief Ben Brown and his mates enthusiastically helped transfer 65 bushels of shell from a CBF truck to the deck of the vessel, then ferried the shells out to the river’s Burton Point reef. There Leggett and CBF volunteers quickly dumped them over the side between two signed markers declaring the reefs protected and off-limits to poaching.
In all during this week’s three-day effort, about a million oysters were placed in the Piankatank. Leggett will repeat this routine four more times this summer, keeping pace with the project’s goal of adding 5 million oysters a year to the river. He’ll also introduce 150 concrete reef balls to the river later this summer and next year to see how they work at building up the reefs.
Restoration progress in the Piankatank has been up and down, Leggett said, but he’s convinced the river has many more oysters today than just a few years ago. His goal is to jumpstart the river’s oyster population enough to allow commercial watermen to harvest juvenile oysters and transfer them to other rivers for grow-out to market size and eventual sale.
That not only would be a boon to the Piankatank and watermen, Leggett points out, but would also expand oyster restoration in ways CBF and its restoration partners could never attempt. How? As more and more of the Piankatank’s young seed oysters are moved around the Bay to fatten for market, they will regularly spawn and help repopulate other Bay rivers with oysters.
And the Piankatank may once again become an oyster factory for the rest of the Bay.
By Chuck Epes