The purpose of the Chesapeake Bay Native Oyster Recovery Program in Virginia is the restoration and rehabilitation of reef habitat to provide for self-sustaining native oyster populations and associated fish and wildlife habitat within the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Virginia. The lead federal agency is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the non-federal sponsor is the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The Corps’ Chesapeake Bay Native Oyster Recovery Program was authorized by Section 704(b) of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986, as amended by Section 342. The program was formulated based on coordination and consultation among many project partners and stakeholders, federal and state resource agencies, watermen, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the academic community and interested citizens, as well as non-profit groups such as Oyster Recovery Partnership, Virginia Seafood Council, Lynnhaven River Now and others. This program also strives to achieve the goals established by the Chesapeake Protection Executive Order 13508 and the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement to restore 10 tributaries in Maryland and Virginia by 2025.
When Captain John Smith arrived with the first English settlers to the New World in 1607, he noted that oysters were so ubiquitous in the Chesapeake Bay (a name translated from the Native American words for “great shellfish bay”) that they lay “as thick as stones.” As recently as 100 years ago, huge oyster reefs posed navigational hazards to ships in the area. These historic populations, dubbed “Chesapeake Gold” by watermen, not only supported a booming oyster industry in Virginia and Maryland, but served the ecosystem by filtering water in the Bay and providing habitat and food for other creatures.
Oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay have experienced a severe decline, beginning in the late 1800’s. Today, oyster population levels and biomass are less than 1 percent of historic levels. This decline has been primarily due to over-harvesting, parasitic diseases, and loss of habitat.
Oysters are a keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Oysters are filter feeders and have the potential to significantly increase water quality by removing suspended solids, organic particles, and phytoplankton from the water, which directly increases water clarity and quality. They also provide important structure and habitat in the form of oyster reefs, which attract a wide variety of fish species and other aquatic life.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been actively involved in oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay since 1996. Since 2001, sanctuaries have been constructed in the Rappahannock River, Tangier/Pocomoke Sound, Great Wicomico River, the Lynnhaven River, and the Piankatank River. Currently restoration efforts of the Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, occur throughout Virginia but are focused within five selected tributaries. These five tributaries were identified as priorities for restoration by the USACE Native Oyster Restoration Master Plan (2012) and were later endorsed by the Chesapeake Bay Program and multiple stakeholders:
- Great Wicomico River
- Piankatank River
- Lower York River
- Lafayette River
- Lynnhaven River
On-going and upcoming efforts include monitoring of previously constructed oyster reefs, rehabilitating existing reefs, designing future reefs for the Piankatank and Lynnhaven Rivers and baseline tributary planning efforts in the Lower York and Great Wicomico River. In 2018, the Lafayette River was the first tributary in Virginia to be considered “provisionally restored” due to the achievement of 80 acres of functioning reef in this tributary.