OYSTERS are an iconic species in Virginia. Sailing up the Chesapeake Bay from Jamestown, Capt. John Smith wrote that they “lay as thick as stones” in the water.
For generations, oysters have played an important role in the Bay’s economy as a food that locals, tourists and the global market love and value. However, overharvesting, pollution and disease caused oyster populations in the region to plummet to as little as 1 percent of historic levels.
The story of the Chesapeake Bay’s once-thriving oyster populations could have undoubtedly come to an end in the early 2000s. Fortunately, a new, more promising chapter is being written.
Through strong partnerships and regional collaboration, we are making great strides in undoing over a century and a half’s worth of damage to our oyster populations. Oysters are coming back, and that is progress worth celebrating.
Oyster restoration has long been a priority for The Nature Conservancy. One oyster alone can filter 50 gallons of water every day, removing sediment and converting harmful nitrogen and phosphorus, which makes our rivers and streams cleaner. Oyster reefs also provide nurseries and feeding grounds for rockfish, crabs, and other species that are commercially and recreationally important.
Since 2009, when an executive order first set goals for oyster restoration, hundreds of acres of oyster reef have been successfully built in Virginia. The Lafayette restoration project is now complete. The Lynnhaven River and the Great Wicomico River restorations are well on their way to completion.
The Piankatank River restoration is past its halfway mark and on track to be completed by 2025. And while the Lower York River project has not yet begun, goals have been set and optimism is high that restoration efforts will be successful.
The Nature Conservancy is just one of a diverse group of partners across the watershed—including the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Lynnhaven River NOW, Elizabeth River Project, and many other conservation groups and academic institutions—that has reintroduced millions of oysters to Virginia’s special piece of the Chesapeake Bay.
We should all be proud of the progress we are making to correct over 150 years of decline in oyster populations in such a short period of time.
Successful partnerships and reliable financial investments are essential to meeting our goals to restore the Chesapeake Bay and consequently protect the myriad of species that rely on this rich ecosystem and the services it provides.
Rebuilding oyster reefs requires significant funding from a variety of sources. For example, without federal funding through U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, more than half of the restoration successes we’ve accomplished to date would not be possible.
Reliable investments in oyster and Chesapeake Bay restoration are essential to achieving the goal adopted by Bay states to restore 10 tributaries by 2025. In years when federal funding has been lacking, Virginia and conservation groups have stepped up in a big way to fill the void.
The commonwealth has invested millions of dollars to maintain existing oyster reefs and to construct new reefs. The Nature Conservancy has simultaneously raised over $750,000 for oyster reef restoration projects.
There’s no doubt that the efforts we’ve made over the past decade are leading to success. In fact, the work that we are doing here in the Chesapeake Bay is having a global impact.
With an 85 percent decline in shellfish populations around the world, people are looking at Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay as the example of how to efficiently and effectively restore impaired bodies of water. From Australia and China to Germany and England, conservation organizations and academic institutions are learning from our success here in Virginia.
More funding means more reefs, more fish, and more commercial and recreational opportunities—all of which leads to a cleaner and healthier Chesapeake Bay.
It is imperative that our state representatives understand how important this funding is to restoring the Chesapeake Bay—an ecological and cultural treasure that is valued here in Virginia and across the globe—and achieving the goals we set for ourselves ten years ago.
We are proud of all that we have accomplished together in this short period of time, and with continued funding and support, we can together write the compelling next chapter in the story about saving our native oyster, a species with profound local and global importance.
Andy Lacatell is the Virginia Chesapeake Bay director at The Nature Conservancy.