Oyster restoration success: Chesapeake Bay project reaches key milestones

Ambitious restoration program is on track to restore oyster reefs in 10 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay by 2025, benefitting both the environment and local seafood economy.
Chesapeak Bay is the largest estuary in the United States.

Chesapeak Bay is the largest estuary in the United States.

Photo: Chesapeak Bay Program.

Efforts to restore oyster reefs in 10 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay by 2025 are on track, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The ambitious oyster reef restoration project in the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, began in 2014.

The project, which has secured $108 million investment over the past ten years, counts NOAA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR), Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) among its partners, together with several nonprofit organizations and academic institutions.

Eight out of the ten large-scale oyster reef restoration sites are now complete, the Program has announced. In April 2024, the lower York River in Virginia was celebrated as the eighth completed oyster restoration site, with more than 200 acres of reef constructed.

The remaining two sites—the Manokin River in Maryland and the Lynnhaven River in Virginia—require restoration of 222 and 38 more acres, respectively. By the end of 2023, a total of 1,572 acres of oyster reefs had been restored across the Chesapeake Bay, equating to 2,075 football fields.

The restoration strategy involves constructing and seeding reefs, followed by rigorous monitoring and evaluation at three- and six-year intervals. These activities are essential for tracking the success of the restoration, including the recruitment of new oysters, survival rates, natural mortality, disease status, growth, reproduction, and shell accumulation.

Oyster reef restoration brings both environmental and economic benefits

Oysters play a crucial role as filter feeders, capable of filtering up to 50 gallons (or almost 190 liters) of water per day, thereby improving water quality. They also provide habitat for aquatic life and can protect shorelines from erosion.

According to the Program, mature restored reefs can also play a crucial role in supporting local economies, with recent studies estimating that mature restored oyster reefs in the Choptank River watershed left unharvested for 10 years can contribute a 160% increase in blue crab harvests per year, supporting an additional 300 jobs.

"Since the late 19th century, the oyster industry—including the catch, sale, shucking, packing and shipping of oysters—has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the region’s economy. Restoring oyster reefs in sanctuary areas can help support harvest reefs in nearby areas because oyster larvae from restoration reefs float with the current and can settle on those harvest reefs," the Program explained in a press release.

“Tributary-scale oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay shows how states and the federal government can work together to bring about major environmental improvements," said Josh Kurtz, Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program Principals’ Staff Committee and Secretary at the Department of Natural Resources, State of Maryland.

"The future for eastern oysters in the Chesapeake Bay is brighter than it has been for decades," he added.

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