Oysters planted on constructed reefs in the Lafayette River are reproducing and thriving, according to the results of a recent survey by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).
A healthy oyster reef must have at least 50 oysters per square meter to sustain itself and meet standards set by the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program. All of the eight reefs surveyed by CBF in early November had densities over that threshold, with one reef as high as 152 oysters per square meter. They all also met other Bay Program standards such as the presence of oysters of various ages, which shows that they are reproducing.
“It’s just amazing to see oysters growing so thickly, especially in an urban river that was polluted for decades. If oysters can come back in the Lafayette, they can come back anywhere they used to be in the Bay,” said CBF Virginia Oyster Restoration Manager Jackie Shannon. “This shows that all these years of planting oysters continues to pay off.”
The Lafayette has been the focus of restoration of the native oyster, which has seen its population decimated to a tiny fraction of historic levels. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint calls for restoring oyster populations in ten rivers in the watershed. Restoration on the Lafayette has generally involved CBF planting oysters on reefs constructed by the Elizabeth River Project (ERP). Since 2010 an annual survey evaluates whether these restored reefs meet Bay Program standards for a thriving, self-sustaining oyster population.
“This collaborative approach for restoring oyster reefs in the Lafayette has really paid off, and will result in the Lafayette River becoming the first tributary in Virginia to meet Bay-wide oyster goals,” said ERP Deputy Director of Restoration Joe Rieger. “Our restored reefs are full of oysters, provide fish habitat, and will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.”
CBF has planted about 40 million spat-on-shell oysters in the Lafayette River since 2010, as well as nearly 1,500 concrete reef balls that provide reef structure for oysters. The Lafayette River neared 75 acres of functioning oyster reef this year, just shy of its 80-acre target.
The Lafayette River is well-suited to rebuilding the oyster population. When oysters spawn their larvae float with the current. The Lafayette’s currents generally keep these baby oysters in the river, rather than floating out into the Bay as often happens in some other rivers. As they grow, these oysters form reef structures, which provide habitat for fish, crabs, and a host of other critters. Annual surveys of aquatic life near Lafayette reefs have found everything from blue crabs and brown shrimp to sea horses and squid.
Oyster restoration work in the Lafayette River by CBF and ERP will continue in 2018 under a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant that supports the construction of 5.5 acres of new oyster reef. The progress on the river is thanks to a collaborative effort among many partners that have not only restored oysters, but also put in place improvements on land that reduce pollution entering the river. As a result of these efforts, bacteria levels in the river have dropped so much that the Lafayette River was removed from the state’s list of waterways where bacteria threaten recreation.
Volunteers and restaurants have also been key to bringing back the Lafayette’s oyster population. Those interested in contributing can grow oysters for restoration through CBF’s oyster gardening program, volunteer with CBF’s oyster team, or ask their favorite restaurant to participate in CBF’s oyster shell recycling program.
Partners in Lafayette River restoration include CBF, ERP, the Bay Program, the City of Norfolk, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Restore America’s Estuaries, NFWF, and the Army Corps of Engineers.