Great Wicomico project culminates a decade of effort—a brief history of oyster restoration in Virginia

Contractors will tomorrow begin seeding 3.8 acres of newly constructed reefs in the Great Wicomico River with 15 million disease-tolerant native oysters. The project culminates more than a decade of effort by state and federal agencies and non-profit citizen groups.

Practical, large-scale restoration of oyster habitat in Virginia began in 1993 with the construction of a three-dimensional reef at Palace Bar in the Piankatank River. This was followed by a second reef in the Great Wicomico River in 1996 and the planting of a large number of mature oysters on that reef. A marked increase in oyster recruitment in the Great Wicomico in 1997 galvanized interest in further efforts.

In 1998, Governor Gilmore announced the Virginia Oyster Heritage Program (VOHP) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation proffered a challenge to secure a 10-fold increase in the Bay's oyster stock over a period of 10 years. These steps expanded the goals of the fledgling restoration effort from work in small estuaries to bay wide impact. The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Program partnered with the Commonwealth of Virginia in VOHP and remains a strong participant in bay wide efforts to date.

The environmental benefits of oyster restoration encouraged the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to bring their skills in large-scale project construction to the Chesapeake Bay effort in the Rappahannock River and Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds in 1999.

A two-year effort during 2000-2002 by the states of Maryland and Virginia in collaboration with NOAA and the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program attempted to estimate the number of oysters in the bay as a baseline for a 10-year effort. Reef construction as a central element of oyster habitat restoration has continued at an increasing pace, and more than 100 reef sanctuaries now exist in the Virginia portion of Chesapeake Bay.

By 2000 the loose collaboration of these private, state, and federal agencies had identified both successes and problems in the employed approaches to restoration. It was becoming more obvious that a critical initial numbers of oysters would probably be needed in any effort to "kick start" sustained natural recruitment, and that a study much larger than anything to date would be needed to test this emerging idea. Plans began to attempt restoration of a complete estuarine system as a single unit, rather than employ sequential additions of reefs within a system over an extended number of years.

The Great Wicomico River was chosen as the test site. A base of reef systems and extensive planting on Baylor Grounds existed from prior efforts by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) from 1996-2002. USACE provided additional expertise and support to provide more shell in 2003 and 2004 resulting in a mosaic of veneers of varying thickness and three-dimensional sanctuary reefs throughout the river system. Beginning in March 2005, contractors will begin seeding 3.8 acres of newly constructed reefs with 15 million disease-tolerant native oysters.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) has aided oyster-restoration efforts in the Commonweath since their inception. VIMS research has helped determine the best substrate for oyster settlement and growth and the most advantageous size for constructed reefs, monitored the development of fish and invertebrate communities on reef structures, and documented the use of reef habitat by major fish species in the Bay. A central part of the VIMS research efforts was development of selectively bred, disease-tolerant strains of local oysters for "seeding" of newly constructed reefs, an effort funded in large part by competitive grant funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Oyster Disease Research Program (NOAA ODRP).

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has mounted a public education program on the value of oysters and oyster reefs to the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, and an oyster gardening program in which millions of oysters were raised for transplanting. In addition, CBF has distributed nearly four million selectively bred oysters from its commercial-scale oyster facility onto reefs in the Great Wicomico and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) also played a key role in these efforts, developing a long-term strategy of planting oyster shell in both the traditional veneers on productive oyster grounds and as three-dimensional reef sanctuaries at selected sites on the historical Baylor Grounds of Virginia.