From the Desk of Alan Girard Fall 2015

Building the World's Largest Man-Made Oyster Reef 

Maryland's Eastern Shore Director Alan Girard. Photo by Nikki Davis.
CBF's Eastern Shore of Maryland Director Alan Girard. Photo by Nikki Davis.

On November 18, more than a dozen science and conservation partners are gathering at CBF's Oyster Expo to celebrate a major accomplishment: completion of what's believed to be the largest man-made oyster reef complex in the world. Click here to join the celebration!

Fortunately for us, these reefs are right here on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Harris Creek off the Choptank River was among the first of 10 Chesapeake Bay tributaries selected to replenish oyster stocks on a large scale. The tributary was targeted by federal and state partners who in 2010 set out to restore an abundant, self-sustaining oyster population. Scientists agreed that rebuilding oyster numbers can provide many benefits, including reef community habitat, nutrient cycling, and water filtration, all while contributing to an enhanced oyster fishery. As of this fall, a partnership of agencies and groups led by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have planted over the last four years more than 2 billion oysters in Harris Creek on about 350 acres of river bottom. It's a density that's expected to sustain a thriving oyster population for many years to come.

Chesapeake Bay oysters at one time plummeted to around one percent of historic levels over the last 150 years. Overfishing and disease have taken their toll.

But thanks to dedicated efforts to limit harvests and propagate oysters for planting on sanctuary reefs, oyster stocks are growing. Landings at the dock have increased from an all-time low of 50,000 bushels in 2002 to nearly one million bushels in 2015.

The rebound is evidence of very good oyster reproduction reported in 2010 and 2012. High densities of oysters restored at places like Harris Creek can add to the success, producing up to 250 times more oyster larvae than oysters on a typical bar. This has major benefits for areas open to harvest, since larvae drift with the tides for weeks before settling down as baby oysters (spat). Wide areas outside sanctuary boundaries can be repopulated with spat as a result.

Limiting access to sanctuary areas has been characterized as a war on watermen. Yet science shows that there is much to be gained from projects like the one at Harris Creek. Oyster restoration can bring back what was once a vast underwater food factory and water-filtering system. Many can benefit from that work, from those who value the Bay for its vitality and beauty, to those who depend on it for their living: watermen, food processors, and others.

CBF members and supporters play a vital role in restoring oysters to the Chesapeake. Whether it's through our popular oyster gardening program or volunteering at CBF's Oyster Restoration Center, people are making a difference. Citizens, students, and volunteers logged thousands of hours producing baby spat for seeding reefs in Harris Creek alone. With help from our oyster restoration vessel the Patricia Campbell, we planted more than 45 million oyster spat in Harris Creek.

Large-scale oyster restoration really can be a pearl that saves the Bay. Stay tuned for more news and information about the return of the Chesapeake oyster and ways you can help continue the progress.

—Alan Girard
Eastern Shore of Maryland Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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