from the Desk of Alison Prost Fall 2015

Building the World's Largest Man-Made Oyster Reef! 

The Washington Post compared it to the world's tallest building. It is right here in Maryland. But it's underwater.  

Harris Creek Oyster Restoration.

Harris Creek oyster restoration. Photo by CBF Staff.

We now have what the Post called the largest man-made oyster reef in the world. Over the last four years, a partnership of agencies and groups led by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration planted an estimated two billion oysters on 350 acres of river bottom on Harris Creek on the Eastern Shore. 

Though we've reached a tremendous milestone, the project is far from over. The ultimate goal is a thriving network of reefs in Harris Creek where oysters have achieved a critical mass and reproduce without the help from man. After six years, if the oysters survive well and mature, the partners hope to declare Harris Creek as the first tributary of the Chesapeake Bay restored to self-sufficiency. 

The work started in Harris Creek in 2011. At the time, there was perhaps only one to three acres of healthy oyster reef remaining in the creek that once boasted 1,500 acres. The bottom had too much mud to support historic quantities of oysters. 

When oysters reproduce, the larvae need a hard substrate upon which to attach. Normally, they attach to existing oysters and shells. So, the first step in restoring the creek was to put down man-made beds of oyster shells and stone. Then, the partners started "planting" hundreds of millions of "spat" (or baby oysters) the size of a dime attached to old oyster shells. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DNR conducted most of this work. 

Then, other partners, led by the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory and Oyster Recovery Partnership, planted hundreds of millions of "spat" (or baby oysters) attached to old oyster shells on the prepared beds. 

CBF's primary role was involving citizens in the project by tallying thousands of hours of volunteer time in producing oysters for planting in the creek. Citizen support for restoration is important for keeping the program going.

With the restoration effort, oysters in Harris Creek are now at densities they were 50 to 100 years ago. If you could snorkel over the reef, you'd see knots of growing oysters clustered together over hundreds of yards—a sort of massive, jagged, shag carpet.  

Achieving the desired planting numbers and acres is a milestone for which we all should be proud. But it's  just the beginning.  

Ultimately, the plan is to restore large oyster reefs in 10 tributaries of the Chesapeake over the next 10 years. Besides the Harris Creek project, two other projects in Maryland and three in Virginia are now underway.

By 2025, the ten super reefs should serve as oyster spawning dynamos that create rich habitat for fish, and filter billions of gallons of water in each tributary. The reefs, to function properly, will need to grow vertically. Historic reefs in the Bay were more like jagged skyscrapers, but harvesting knocked them down. The Harris Creek reef is starting out relatively flat but will grow over time. While the reefs will be off-limits to harvesting, scientists believe they likely will help boost the population of oysters in general, including those in nearby harvesting areas.

Achieving the ultimate goal will be a challenge. We'll need sustained government funding and commitment of all the partners, as well as the ongoing involvement of private citizens. To that end, CBF is going all in. Check out our latest oyster restoration activities:

  • On Saturday, Oct. 24, we will co-sponsor the Baltimore Oyster Festival at West Shore Park from 1 p.m.-5 p.m. to highlight the wonders of oysters themselves as well as the work of about 100 volunteers who are currently raising baby oysters in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. 
  • We just concluded our fall oyster gardening workshops, in which we teach interested participants how to raise baby oysters.  Several hundred people will parent these bi-valves over the winter. The oysters will then be collected and planted on sanctuary reefs in the spring. 
  • On Wednesday, November 18, we are hosting an Oyster Expo at our Easton Office to highlight the work of all the Harris Creek partners.

It's a milestone time for oysters in the Chesapeake. Please help us maintain the momentum of Harris Creek. 

—Alison Prost
Maryland Executive Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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