The native oyster is an extremely resilient species, able to tolerate wide variations in salinity and temperature—but it has not been immune to the pressures of disease, overharvesting, and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. As a result, native oyster populations in Chesapeake Bay are at less than 1% of historic levels.
This tremendous decline in the oyster population has dramatically changed the ecology of the Bay as well as the oyster fishery and the cultural tradition of watermen who harvest seafood from the Bay for a living. One of the responses to this decline has been attempts to restore oyster populations. NOAA and its partners bring expertise and knowledge of the science and techniques behind oyster restoration to projects around the Bay.
NOAA is involved in oyster restoration projects at a number of locations around the Chesapeake Bay, several areas in Maryland's Choptank River complex (click for updates)—Harris Creek, the Tred Avon River, and the Little Choptank River—as well as the Lafayette, Lynnhaven, and Piankatank Rivers in Virginia.
The video below shows what a typical prerestoration site looks like (video taken in the Tred Avon River, summer 2014), as well as two short video clips from a postrestoration site (taken in Harris Creek in October 2015 on a reef that was constructed in 2012 and seeded in 2013).
The first project in that area kicked off in a major, tributary-wide effort in Harris Creek on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In Harris Creek, a team of federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions including NOAA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and Oyster Recovery Partnership, supported development of the Harris Creek Oyster Restoration Tributary Plan, which details the restoration site selection process and the reef construction, seeding, and monitoring required to bring Harris Creek in line with the oyster metrics definition of a successfully restored tributary.
The Maryland Interagency Oyster Workgroup also has released a Little Choptank River Oyster Restoration Tributary Plan to guide oyster restoration there. The workgroup is currently developing a Tributary Plan for the Tred Avon River, also in the Choptank River system on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Click on the pinpoints in the map below for more information on NOAA involvement and progress in restoring native oysters in these tributaries.
NOAA's Role in Oyster Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay
NOAA is one of the lead federal agencies involved in oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office is working with federal, state, and local partners in Maryland and Virginia to implement large-scale restoration and to provide science support and evaluation to understand how to better manage the resource and habitat.
NOAA’s financial and technical support of oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay has grown from one small demonstration-scale project of less than ¼ acre in 1995, to multiagency, tributary-scale projects—often hundreds of acres. The goal of early projects was to restore oysters while fostering citizen involvement in the recovery effort, whereas current programs focus on achieving the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement's goal of restoring native oysters to 10 tributaries by 2025.
NOAA funding over the years has been used for all facets of restoration activities, but has been used in Maryland specifically to address capacity limitations such as shell handling, hatchery tanks, water quality, algal production, and other restoration infrastructure needs. But the focus has always been on maximizing on-the-ground projects in both low- and high-salinity areas. Results of these projects have been mixed, with some sites having high survival rates and showing long-term persistence, and other sites succumbing to disease, sedimentation, or both legal and illegal harvest.
NOAA, Partners Share Oyster Restoration Science at Conference
The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office led a panel of presentations on oyster restoration science at the 18th International Conference on Shellfish Restoration in 2016. The goal of the session was to share the latest science with people involved in oyster restoration around the United States so they can learn from and build on science and techniques used in the Chesapeake Bay. The scientists' presentations are available here:
NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office Annual Funding for Native Oyster Restoration by Year
Beginning in 2002, NOAA expanded its funding to include restoration activities in Virginia through a cooperative agreement with the Virginia Oyster Reef Heritage Foundation, as well as continuing with work in Maryland. While funding in Maryland was used for hatchery production of spat-on-shell for sites restored with other non-NOAA funds, the funding for Virginia was principally used to purchase and place dredged-shell (2002) or shuck-house shell (2003) on restoration sites in a number of tributaries, most notably the lower Rappahannock River.
From 2004 to present, NOAA oyster restoration funds have been more consistently focused in each state. Maryland continues to address hatchery spat-on-shell production capacity issues and upgrades, as well as the placement of annual hatchery production—in some years exceeding 500 million spat-on-shell. NOAA partners in Maryland include the Oyster Recovery Partnership, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District, and Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In Virginia, NOAA funds have supported extensive evaluation, survey, and initial monitoring efforts of an expanded partnership project, which now includes the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Current efforts focus on evaluating the success of the Great Wicomico River restoration efforts, with new restored acreage to be placed in the York River.