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Mace & Crown | December 11, 2017

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Oyster Habitat Being Restored By Marine Biology Association

Oyster Habitat Being Restored By Marine Biology Association
Ben Maxie
Contributing Writer

Oysters, while possibly the most overrated seafood, are important bio filters for local water. It is estimated; however, that the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped up to 99 percent since preindustrial times due largely to overfishing and diseases. One student organization at Old Dominion University is working with local, non-profit organizations to restore the oyster reefs which were once in Norfolk’s waters.

The ODU Marine Biology Student Association’s Oyster Restoration Committee is raising oysters by the Whitehurst Pier. After losing their last crop to the 2014 Nor’easter, the group placed two cages of juveniles in the water last semester.

“The hope is that they’ll spawn and attract more oysters to the Whitehurst beach area,” Tyler Harman, chairman of the committee, said.

The committee works with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), which has several oyster restoration projects. Their largest project involves a 350 acre planted oyster reef in Harris Creek, Maryland. CBF is beginning to see positive results of oyster seeding in Norfolk.

“We’re seeing a lot of great [new oyster] recruitment by the mouth of the Lafayette River,” Jackie Shannon, the Virginia Oyster Restoration Manager for the CBF, said.

Oyster Restoration Committee members, Holly Skaluba, Kathryn Weisner and Tyler Harman, place juvenile oysters in the Elizabeth River, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo by: Ben Maxie

Oyster Restoration Committee members, Holly Skaluba, Kathryn Weisner and Tyler Harman, place juvenile oysters in the Elizabeth River, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo by: Ben Maxie

Providing the dead oyster shells young oysters typically grow on creates a problem for their restoration. The dead shells tend to be too expensive for most reseeding projects. The ODU restoration committee is arranging to work with the US Army Corps of Engineers to test cheaper alternatives to shell, such as granite.

Oysters have been sliding toward extinction in the Chesapeake Bay for a considerable length of time. The oyster population started dropping after the Civil War when canning oysters became popular by the Chesapeake Bay.

“At their peak, there were around 200,000 acres of oyster reef in the bay. Now there are only around 36,000 acres,” Cate Turner, former chair of the committee, said.

Rampant overfishing for over a century lead to depleted populations unable to replenish themselves or the surrounding areas. To make matters worse, two devastating diseases showed up in the 1950’s and have decimated oyster populations ever since.

The group at ODU hopes if they can bring oysters back to ODU,  the oysters may help to naturally recolonize the surrounding area. More oyster reef is expected to lead to better water quality and more habitat for other species.