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The Chesapeake Bay’s New Project To Bring Oysters Back

Federal and state agencies are trying to restore Chesapeake Bay's oysters, and two billion pinpoint-sized baby oysters are at the heart of the effort.

The Chesapeake Bay has a new project to bring oysters back. Federal and state agencies are trying to restore Chesapeake Bay’s oysters, and two billion pinpoint-sized baby oysters are at the heart of the effort.

The Chesapeake was once so full of oysters that Native Americans called it “great shellfish bay.” A combination of overfishing, disease, pollution, silting, and runoff has devastated oyster numbers in North America’s biggest estuary. Harvests are at about one percent of the records set in the 1880s when 20 million bushels were pulled from the bay.

Now federal and state agencies are trying to reverse the trend with a $30-million dollar oyster restoration experiment aimed at improving water quality, restoring habitat and stabilizing shorelines in the 3,200-square-mile. Experts say it could take years before they know whether the creek’s oysters can sustain themselves there.

If successful, the Chesapeake Bay’s new project could inspire similar efforts elsewhere. Oysters also help maintain water quality by filtering water. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and when numbers were at their peak oysters could strain the entire Chesapeake Bay in three days. Right now it takes about a year to do the same process.

The new project calls for the dumping of hundreds of thousands of tons of granite and old oyster shells on about 370 acres of the estuary bottom. The substrate then acts as a resting place for shells seeded with the speck-sized infant oysters called spat. Hundreds of bushels of seeded shells at a time have been loaded onto the Robert Lee, a converted oyster boat, since the spring. The shells and their spat of native Eastern oysters are sprayed overboard into Harris Creek using a high-pressure hose attached to a boom.

To date, the shortage of oyster shells has proved the biggest impediment. Demand has skyrocketed with the expansion of aquaculture and the price of shells has gone from 50 cents to $2 a bushel. The Harris Creek restoration is being overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

The Chesapeake Bay implemented this new project to bring revenue and cleaner waters back to the area in hopes that it would start a chain reaction elsewhere. It will take some time, but, once results are seen, it will be well worth it for everyone.

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