NOAA – Partners working to restore oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay made a lot of progress in 2021. Federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations are partnering in the Chesapeake Bay Program to restore oysters to 10 tributaries in the Bay by 2025. Their large-scale restoration efforts have yielded nearly 925 football fields’ worth of healthy habitat so far!
Other restoration highlights include:
- Restoration has been completed in six out of the 10 tributaries selected
- 1,220 acres have been restored out of the 1,770 acres targeted for restoration
- In Maryland, 5.43 billion spat-on-shell have been planted—697 million in 2021
- In Virginia, nearly 30 percent of the reefs constructed so far were constructed last year, making 2021 a banner year
The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which guides the work of the Chesapeake Bay Program, calls for state and federal partners to “restore native oyster habitat and populations in 10 Bay tributaries by 2025, and ensure their protection” (hereafter, “Ten Tributaries” initiative). Five tributaries are being restored in Maryland and five in Virginia. To achieve this outcome, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT) convened working groups in each state. With guidance from consulting scientists and the public, these groups set tributary-specific restoration goals and developed plans (hereafter, “Restoration Blueprints”) describing how the tributaries will be restored, consistent with success criteria described in the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Metrics Report (hereafter, “Oyster Metrics”). Detailed summaries of progress in Maryland and Virginia follow.
All five Virginia tributaries targeted for restoration under the Ten Tributaries initiative have been selected, and each now has a completed Restoration Blueprint. Restoration work in three Virginia tributaries has been completed (Lafayette, Piankatank, and Great Wicomico rivers). In-water restoration work is well under way in the remaining two tributaries: the Lower York and Lynnhaven rivers. To date, partners have restored 355 acres of oyster reefs at a cost of approximately $11.94 million. A description of restoration work done prior to the Ten Tributaries initiative is in each river’s Restoration Blueprint. Above and beyond the ten tributaries planned for restoration Bay-wide, Virginia partners have also restored the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River to the same standards, making this an additional, ‘bonus’ tributary.
Virginia 2021 Highlights and Challenges Highlights
• Partners completed oyster restoration work in two tributaries in 2021 (Piankatank and Great Wicomico); Governor Northam attended the celebration event with multiple partners who contributed directly to the
restoration of the tributaries.
• Approximately 30% of the reef acreage constructed in Virginia under the Ten Tributaries initiative was constructed in 2021, making this a banner year.
• Construction progress was made in both the Lower York and Lynnhaven rivers. Funding is in place to finish both tributaries by 2025.
• NOAA Fisheries hosted its first “Oyster Week,” highlighting content about oyster restoration and the benefits of restored oyster reefs as well as aquaculture on its nationwide website and several social media platforms, including nearly 25 Twitter posts during the November 1-5 event.
• Some individuals in user groups (e.g., boating public, adjacent private lease holders, waterfront property owners, watermen) have expressed opposition to some proposed projects in Virginia.
• As targets are almost reached, the last remaining acreage may become more difficult and/or expensive per acre of restoration on some tributaries.
Factors Influencing Success in Virginia
Many factors may influence the success of the Ten Tributaries outcome. These include restoration funding,
poaching, water quality, oyster disease, acquisition of real estate rights, fluctuations in natural oyster recruitment, and availability of suitable reef-building substrate. That oyster restoration can succeed in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay has been validated by past successful oyster restoration efforts in the Lafayette, Piankatank, Great Wicomico, and Lynnhaven rivers and by the discovery of a relict, self-sustaining oyster population in the Lafayette River. These serve as evidence that oyster populations can prosper in the Chesapeake Bay, either naturally or due to restoration in sanctuaries. Virginia experiences relatively high natural oyster recruitment rates, which minimizes the need for augmentation with hatchery-produced oysters. Recent declining trends in disease mortality rates may increase on-reef survival and sustainability of restoration efforts.