Eastern Oyster

A Maryland Department of Natural Resources study released in 2011 showed higher levels of oyster reproduction and a lower mortality rate for the Chesapeake Bay oyster, reaffirming CBF's extensive restoration efforts. Photo by Tom Pelton/CBF StaffA Maryland Department of Natural Resources study released in 2011 showed higher levels of oyster reproduction and a lower mortality rate for the Chesapeake Bay oyster.  Photo by Tom Pelton/CBF Staff.

Great Shellfish of the Bay

Since colonial times, the Chesapeake (meaning "great shellfish Bay" in Algonquin) has lost more than 98 percent of its oysters. Gone are the days when oyster reefs posed navigational hazards to Chesapeake Bay explorers or watermen pulled 17 million bushels of oysters each year. Now, Maryland and Virginia watermen and the seafood industry have lost $4 billion in income in the past 30 years alone. But as recent studies find, all is not lost.

A two-month Maryland Department of Natural Resources survey conducted in 2011 revealed higher levels of oyster reproduction and a lower mortality rate. In fact, Chesapeake Bay oysters seem to be growing heartier and more robust. Given that each adult oyster filters and cleans up to 50 gallons of water per day—gobbling up algae, and removing dirt and nitrogen pollution—that's good news for the health of the Chesapeake Bay and for us.

After a devastating bout with disease in the late 1980s combined with decades of overharvesting, habitat destruction, and water pollution, the oyster was hanging on by a thread. "That was a turning point really," says CBF Fisheries Director Bill Goldsborough, "because up until that point, for the previous 100 years, oysters had supported the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake Bay."

Now, thanks to increased awareness, extensive restoration efforts such as CBF's citizen oyster-gardening program and reef ball production, resisting the introduction of a non-native oyster species, and favorable weather conditions, there is hope for the mighty oyster yet.

Learn more about CBF's oyster restoration efforts.

Support Efforts to Restore Three-Dimensional Reefs to the Bay

SPREAD the word to your neighbors and friends about how important oysters are to the health of the waters and wildlife of the Bay.

SHARE your support for oyster recovery—and especially the unique value of vertical reefs—by writing a letter in your local paper or to state officials responsible for oyster restoration.

VOLUNTEER with CBF’s active oyster restoration program by building reef balls, cleaning shells, or becoming an oyster gardener. Visit cbf.org/oysters
for more info.

MAKE A DONATION to support our oyster restoration program by giving the gift of oysters from our online Giving Catalog at cbf.org/catalog.

Video screen capture from The Incredible Oyster ReefIn this video, we explore how the lowly oyster does quite extraodinary things—from filtering our water to providing habitat—oysters really are quite incredible, a keystone species with a remarkable and indispensable ability to heal the Bay's troubled waters.

What Should be the Role of Oysters in the Bay Cleanup?

The mighty oyster's capacity for removing excess nutrients from our Bay's waters is well known. But is it enough to consider oysters a player in achieving the pollution reductions of the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint? A number of factors need to be understood to engage in such a discussion. CBF's position on using oysters to comply with the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load addresses these factors.

The "Coral Reefs" of the Chesapeake Bay

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Oyster reefs are like the coral reefs of the tropics in the way they support a diversity of life. Oyster reefs are more than just mounds of oysters. The intricate latticework of shells, like that of coral, provides diverse habitats for many small plants and animals, invertebrates, and fish that make their homes on reefs. The abundance of life draws larger animals such as striped bass and blue crabs that come to the reefs to feed.

Unfortunately, we have grown accustomed to thinking of the Bay as largely flat beneath the surface. We talk of "oyster beds" and "bars." But this is not the natural state. Oysters grow vertically, one on top of the next, reaching upward through the water.

Over thousands of years, these "communal" animals that cluster together in colonies created a mountainous landscape that lined the Bay’s channels and spread toward its shores.

When the colonists first arrived, a massive reef system extended throughout most of the Bay and its tidal tributaries. Then modern technology came along and scraped them away. Most of the reefs are now gone. What was once a three dimensional aquatic jungle, is now a flat desert by comparison.

As we move forward in our efforts to restore a healthy oyster population, it is vital to consider the important role that vertical structure plays in a healthy reef system. However, some approaches to restoring vertical structure have met with opposition from certain stakeholders, concerned that reef balls or other materials may interfere with some harvest techniques, such as trotlining for crabs, and navigation.

History tells us that three-dimensional oyster reefs belong in the Bay. It’s time to jog our collective memory and do what’s needed to recreate this vital habitat for oysters and for a healthier Bay. Support efforts to restore three-dimensional reefs to the Bay.


You may also be interested in:

Maryland Oyster Gardening
Help restore oysters in Maryland. Start your own oyster garden.

S.O.S. - Save Oyster Shell
Donate your empty shells to CBF so we can recycle them into more oyster reefs and repopulate the Bay with more oysters.

Virginia Oyster Gardening
Help restore oysters in Virginia. Start your own oyster garden.

Oysters Are Thriving on CBF Reefs
Taking a look at how the Somerset Oyster Sanctuary restoration site is doing 11 years later.

Spat Catcher Program
Each spring, volunteers from the Lafayette River area hope to attract swimming oyster larvae to special cages suspended from piers.

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