If you pay any attention to the never-ending struggle to improve water quality, wildlife populations, and the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay – and as an angler in the Mid-Atlantic region we certainly hope you do – you’ve probably heard about a new partnership called the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance and its stated goal of adding 10 billion oysters to the Bay by 2025. The Alliance consists of about three dozen entities stretching from Baltimore, MD, to Virginia Beach, VA. Businesses, foundations, national and local environmental groups, and universities all have seats at the table. In meeting its goal the oyster-count is to include those oysters growing in the wild thanks to restoration efforts, and increases in oyster being aquacultured.

oysters from chesapeake bay
Capt. Jeffrey Gibbs preps oysters for planting in the Elizabeth River. Photo by Patrick Bloodgood, US Army

But, exactly what will this partnership do? How will it be any different from the many other group efforts and alliances which have been trying to restore oyster populations – which by most estimates currently sit at a mere one to two percent of historical levels – for decades on end? Can it really work, where so many times oyster restoration has failed? To find out, we sat down with Dr. Allison Colden, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Restoration Outreach Coordinator.

“We need to jump-start the population, so the oysters can get back into self-replenishment mode,” says Colden, “and what’s different this time is that we’re viewing restoration at scale. We’re not looking at one bar or sanctuary, but entire river systems which can be brought back to self-sustaining populations.”

Buying the Bivalves

Colden recognizes that the past four decades of replenishment effort have not been effective and feels we’re at a turning point where better networks and communication reaching across industry, environmental groups, and government can pay off. Unfortunately, the “glue that holds it all together” as Collison terms it, federal funding for Chesapeake Bay restoration, is under constant threat.

As an example, she points to the 350-acre Harris Creek oyster reef. “Harris Creek is the largest oyster restoration project in the world,” she notes. “and federal and state government funding helped make it happen. The Corps of Engineers did a lot of the heavy lifting. It’s been a tremendous success.”

The proof of this success can be found in NOAA’s 2016 Oyster Reef Monitoring Report, an in-depth analysis of data collected at the Harris Creek project. It addresses factors like oyster biomass (97-percent of the restored area met the threshold density for successful restoration) to reef foot-print (100-percent met the criteria for stable or increasing reef footprint). This is a 142-page report, jam-packed with tables, graphs, facts, and figures. The science is indisputable.

We all know how important science-based evidence is, but after you greet daybreak on Harris Creek with a fishing rod in your hand, all that scientific data is rapidly eclipsed by what you’ll see with your own eyes. Here, the “murky” waters of the Chesapeake are scrubbed by thousands of filter-feeding oysters to provide three to four feet or more of visibility. Huge forests of underwater grasses sway with the currents as far as they eye can see in the shallows, while striped bass, white perch, and speckled sea trout hunt along the forest’s edges. Last October during the Rod & Reef Slam fishing tournament the FishTalk fishing team probed the shallows of the creek’s eastern side, and we were able to actually sight-cast to striped bass and white perch. Yes, sight-casting for rockfish in the Middle Chesapeake Bay – who would have thought that would be possible in our lifetimes?

Oyster Value Added

Assuming the funding for similar projects can be secured, protecting those oysters from harvest for the long term could prove challenging. The past four decades of failed “restoration” efforts often served merely as put-and-take fisheries in reality, with oysters seeded in the wild then scooped up and sold by commercial fishermen as soon as they reached market size. Just last year, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan supported re-opening portions of the state’s oyster sanctuaries to harvest. Currently, about 76-percent of the state’s waters are open to harvest and about 24 percent is set aside as sanctuary. Fortunately for the oysters, the state legislature blocked the move, passing a law stopping any such harvest until a survey of the oyster population has been completed. But this is an ongoing fight – until 2010 only nine percent of the state’s waters were sanctuaries, and even then there was a constant push by commercial interests to harvest these areas.

The same battles routinely take place in Virginian waters. In the case of the Rappahannock river, the absurdity of the situation somehow escaped regulators when they allowed for the harvesting of oysters from sanctuary areas in 2007, and then established a buy-back program to return those very same harvested oysters back to the very same reefs. Huh?

These continual battles will naturally need to be fought. As long as there are people harvesting wild oysters, there will be people trying to harvest them from “protected” areas. The Alliance does, however, attempt to extend its reach beyond this one dimension of the oyster population.

Oysters in the water are oysters in the water, period, and they’re filtering that water whether they’re living in the wild or being cultured for profit. So a large portion of the 10 billion figure is expected to come from growing operations. In the Virginia portion of the Bay, cultured oysters already outnumber oysters living in the wild. This explosive increase in aquaculture is encouraging, but may also be a bit misleading.

Clearly a proponent of oyster aquaculture, Collison points out that in terms of filtration, cultured oysters make a significant contribution. She also notes that aquaculture operations are run by watermen, and create jobs for watermen. However, she also admits that in Virginia in particular, they don’t have as significant an impact on overall populations as one might hope because they don’t reproduce. “Most of the oysters raised in Virginia are triploids (sterile) because they’re more disease-resistant and they grow faster,” she says. “There are some triploids in Maryland, but disease is less of a problem there. And since Triploid spat (baby oysters) cost more, growers only use them where necessary.”

The fact that farmed oysters out-number wild oysters clearly illustrates one other point: if we really wanted to dramatically increase wild oyster populations, we could. We’ve already proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that we can rapidly grow oysters in exceedingly large numbers when there’s a profit motive in play. If the will and the financing was present, at least in areas where disease isn’t as big a problem we could grow just as many oysters for the purposes of replenishment.

Shucking the Suspicions

Another issue to be dealt with is the notion of some in the environmental community that the 10 Billion oyster project is little more than a PR move, invented with the goal of promoting funding and donations for use by some of the entities involved. We interviewed two sources familiar with the politics of the matter – both of whom declined to be named – who more or less felt that creating the Alliance was a political maneuver that probably won’t change reality on the ground all that much.

There could be a kernel of truth to the assertion, although we have to point out that good PR for Alliance members is also good PR for the Bay, and if it helps the Bay in the long run, it is in fact creating change for the better. What really matters here is bringing the Chesapeake back to its former beauty and glory. And if in doing so some organizations strive to attain funding, so be it – at least in that case they’re doing so by helping increase the oyster populations, instead of reducing them.

- Lenny Rudow