The disappearing oyster population of Chesapeake Bay: Could 3 million year old fossils hold the key to saving this valuable resource?
Oysters have long been seen as an inexhaustible resource, harvested throughout the years without concern for consequences. According to Mike Naylor, shellfish program manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is now at barely 1 percent of what it had been in the past. This is troublesome because oysters play a critical part in the ecosystem of the Bay, serving as a filtration system and also drawing associated organisms that create a community of filters and filter feeders.
For over 20 years, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the leading nonprofit dedicated to restoring oysters to the Bay, has been working with public and private partners such as the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Additionally, recent years have seen a renewed focus on the Bay, in part due to President Obama’s Executive Order 13508, issued in May 2009, which requires the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay to release a yearly Chesapeake Bay Action Plan and progress report.
The team at the University of Maryland’s Horne Point Lab, which was built in partnership with the State of Maryland, is managing large-scale oyster restoration through extensive juvenile oyster production and advanced ecosystem modeling. The lab has been able to successfully get its production to up over a billion oyster spat per year.
One of the project’s biggest challenges has been finding suitable substrate on which oysters would thrive. Traditionally, oysters prefer to settle on oyster shell. While existing oyster shell in Maryland was sparse, fossilized shells dug from a mine on the panhandle in Florida was found to work well to support the state’s plan to restore oysters to targeted rivers. The trick was bringing the shells north in a cost effective manner.
To help defray the cost, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation drew on its experience in the Gulf of Mexico as well as its existing partnership with CSX Transportation in the Chesapeake region to facilitate the rail-borne transport of the unprecedented amount of fossilized natural oyster shell.
Steve Williams, a board member for NFWF, notes that as a partner in the project, CSX agreed to provide transportation of the shells as an in-kind contribution of approximately $2.5 million. “Without the involvement of CSX,” Williams adds, “this project would have taken years and years to complete.”
When completed, CSX’s “Oyster Express” will have transported a total of 112,500 cubic yards of fossilized oyster shell from Florida to Harris Creek, a tidal creek on the eastern shore of Maryland. The shell that is being transported will be used to build about 70 acres of underwater habitat in the creek to function as nursery grounds for these oysters. Upon those habitats, the University of Maryland and the Oyster Recovery Partnership will directly place millions upon millions of oysters.
As Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley notes in the video, “Because of this partnership, we’re able to make progress for the health of the Bay…and more importantly, the future generation of Maryland.”
The result of this collaboration is the single largest oyster restoration project using natural substrate in the history of the Chesapeake Bay. It demonstrates how such a strong partnership can help to achieve even the most ambitious conservation goals and deliver important benefits to both natural and human communities in and around the Bay.
[Mike] Oysters in Maryland are at approximately one percent of their historic abundance. Much of Chesapeake Bay's habitat, the entire ecosystem, revolved around oysters.
[Dr. Merritt] We have done to it what we've done to most of the world's natural resources that were there in abundance, we figured that it was inexhaustible, and we could harvest it without any consequences. And, when people talk about the value of the oysters as far as filtering the bay, that really is only part of the equation. A lot of those organisms that associate with oysters are also filter-feeders. So, it's the filtration that the community provides that's really important, not just the filtration that the oysters provide.
The restoration of oysters, as a keystone species, is one of the most important things we need to do to bring Chesapeake Bay back.
[Claire] So, one of the challenges that we have in the oyster restoration business is finding suitable substrate.
[Stephan] Oysters, in general, prefer oyster shell to set on. And then, once the shell is down at the bottom it remains viable.
[Claire] But, oyster shell in Maryland is very, very sparse.
[Stephan] We're now exploring a mine in the panhandle of Florida that's getting fossilized oyster shells from the late Pliocene period, about 3 million years ago. We're digging them up, washing them, grating them, and having them shipped to Maryland for use in Harris Creek. We will be bringing about 100,000 cubic yards of fossilized oyster shells from this quarry in Florida up to Maryland over the next eight to nine months. This is the largest rail movement, certainly, of shells ever performed in the United States and probably the world.
Upon those habitats, the University of Maryland and Oyster Recovery Partnership will directly place millions upon millions of oysters. We are making habitats out of thin air. However, it's extremely expensive. We were able to partner with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and CSX to defray the cost somewhat for moving these oyster shells.
[Steve] NFWF approached CSX, and asked them if they would be interested in helping the foundation achieve some of the results they're looking for in oyster restoration. CSX agreed to provide transportation of fossilized oyster shells from the state of Florida all the way to the Chesapeake Bay in an in-kind contribution of somewhere around 2.5 million dollars. Without the involvement of CSX, this project would have taken years and years to complete. As it is, they'll be bringing almost 3000 tons of shells in the next year or so. So, their contribution is significant to oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay.
[Dr. Boesch] In partnership with the state, we've built this large cultivation facility, the Horn Point Lab, at the University of Maryland. We can use the science and actually produce large quantities of oysters to be used in the restoration effort. It's a process.
[Steve] We go out and we collect bridge stock. We bring them back in here, we condition them to be ready to spawn, we spawn the oysters, we raise the larvae, we get the larvae to the point where they're ready to settle, and then we introduce them into our setting tanks and then those oysters set. We've been able to successfully get our production up over a billion spat per year. The Oyster Recovery Partnership would come in and deploy those to various grow-out sites around the bay.
[Stephan] The purpose of having these restored reefs, both on natural bottom and on the substrate, is to create viable oyster reefs and that's the key to anything, because what we know from the science and from everything we've learned, is having these viable reefs pay off tremendously down the road, as far as the ecologic benefits on what they provide to the bay and the bay's ecosystem.
You might be used to dredging, which is where you take material out and put it onto a barge. Oyster reef restoration is actually reverse dredging. You bring a barge full of substrate material and then you take a clamshell dredge and it pulls it out and it places it in the water. And so, we get a rough layer of 6 to 12 inches of material that covers the area we want.
The Harris Creek restoration project is the largest restoration project that I'm aware of, certainly on the East Coast, if not in the entire country. Today, we've done 188 acres and this year, being 2014, we'll plan on doing about 750 million oysters that we plant within that tributary, so 4 to 5 million oysters per acre.
I know it's successful because we have demonstrated time and time again that we can take an area that has almost no oysters there and we can turn it into a living, vibrant oyster community.
[David] The effort today, what we're seeing out here on the barge, is just half of what's going to be coming in to this facility every six to eight days.
[Marlin] To give you some perspective, the shell that is being brought here would cover 80 football fields a foot deep in oyster shell.
[Michael] I thought it was a really exciting project, where this is the great kind of public, private partnerships that really can do good things for our community here, for the Chesapeake Bay, which is dear to all of us.
[Marlin] Because of this partnership, we're able to make progress for the health of the bay, the waters of the bay, therefore for us, and more importantly the future generation of Maryland, this bay upon which our lives depend.