Feature: New project aims to bring oysters back to Chesapeake Bay

Fri Jul 12, 2013 12:59pm EDT
 
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By Ian Simpson

OXFORD, Maryland (Reuters) - The Chesapeake was once so full of oysters that Native Americans called it "great shellfish bay." No more.

A combination of overfishing, disease, pollution, silting and runoff has devastated oyster numbers in North America's biggest estuary. Harvests are at about 1 percent of the records set in the 1880s, when 20 million bushels were pulled from the bay.

Now federal and state agencies are trying to reverse the trend with a $30-million dollar oyster restoration experiment aimed at improving water quality, restoring habitat and stabilizing shorelines in the 3,200-square-mile (8,300-square km) estuary.

Two billion pinpoint-sized baby oysters are at the heart of the effort to restore the bay's oysters, one inlet at a time. The first testing ground: a narrow tributary of the Choptank River called Harris Creek, targeted as part of a 2009 executive order by President Barack Obama to protect the Chesapeake and its watershed.

Experts say it could take years before they know whether the creek's oysters can sustain themselves there.

"You want to get the snowball rolling downhill so that it can keep going by itself," said Mike Naylor, assistant director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' shellfish division. "It's going to be a really long time before we can say it worked, it's done."

If successful, the project could inspire similar efforts elsewhere. According to a 2011 Nature Conservancy Report, 85 percent of oyster reefs—which provide habitat for sea life and feeding grounds for migratory birds--have been lost around the world.

Oysters also help maintain water quality by filtering water. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and when numbers were at their peak oysters could strain the entire Chesapeake Bay in three days. Now, it takes a year.   Continued...

 
The Oyster Recovery partnership works on Harris Creek, Maryland in this handout picture courtesy of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources taken by Mike Naylor, Shellfish Program Assistant Director at the Department of Natural Resources on May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Naylor/Maryland Department of Natural Resources/Handout via Reuters