PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- Around the muddy banks of Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve, a new home took shape Oct. 16.
The prime real estate, developed by the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is slated for occupancy by one of the Chesapeake Bay’s famous inhabitants: the eastern oyster.
“Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation is thrilled to have the oyster reef just off our shoreline,” said Helen Kuhns, the Preserve’s executive director. “The reef will provide intertidal habitat, help to improve water quality in Hoffler Creek, and greatly increase our capacity to provide oyster education along our shoreline near oyster gardening floats, which are maintained by local students.”
The Hoffler Creek Oyster Reef project is phase two of a 10-year, $70 million, 411-acre environmental mitigation plan, which is aimed at offsetting the environmental impacts associated with the Corps’ Craney Island Eastward Expansion, or CIEE, project.
The CIEE project, which is expanding Craney Island with dredged material that will serve as the base for a new port terminal, is expected to impact the bottom of the Elizabeth River.
The project’s mitigation plan uses a “landscape approach,” which allows all three-habitat elements – wetlands creation, oyster restoration and creation, and remediation of Elizabeth River bottom – to thrive and sustain each other.
The Corps completed first phase of mitigation in November, with an 11-acre wetlands creation project at Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth.
The Elizabeth and Lafayette rivers benefit the second phase; a 16-acre, six-sanctuary oyster reef initiative, which is aimed at restoring a sustainable oyster population. After Hoffler Creek’s sanctuary reef construction, the Norfolk District will complete two reefs at Gilligan Creek in Chesapeake, Va.; one at Blows Creek in Chesapeake; one at Baines Creek in Portsmouth; and one along the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Va.
As sanctuary reefs, the areas will be off-limits to shellfish harvesting.
In the spring, the Corps will seed all the oyster reefs with about six million spat-on-shell, which are baby oysters set on oyster shells in a hatchery.
“Once they are placed onto the oyster reefs, they should help jump-start the reef's oyster biomass and increase its chances of success,” said David Schulte, oceanographer in the district’s planning branch. “The Corps will carefully monitor each reef and site for years. We'll conduct physical surveys of each reef and perform oyster counts. If the oyster count drops, we'll plant more oyster spat-on-shell to bring oyster numbers and biomass back up.”
The Virginia Port Authority, the Corps’ partner in the $900 million CIEE project, supports the environmental mitigation project.
“This is the largest environmental initiative ever undertaken for the Elizabeth River and its surrounding tributaries,” said Heather Wood, the VPA’s environmental director. “It’s exciting news!
In areas where little or no shell exists, construction of the reefs will change the habitat into one that’s friendlier to oysters.
The height of the reefs, after post-construction settling, will be approximately 12-16 inches thick.
Through a special agreement with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Corps contractor Precon Marine Inc. of Chesapeake, is using 39,000 cubic yards of fossil oyster shell dredged from the lower James River to build-up areas where historic reefs were once located.
The layer of fossil shell will serve as the reef base throughout the proposed mitigation area.
The reefs will incorporate knowledge and experience gained from other Corps oyster reef restoration and habitat projects in Virginia’s Great Wicomico, Rappahannock and Lynnhaven rivers, and Tangier and Pocomoke sounds.
“Hopefully, years from now, we’ll start to see an increase in oyster recruitment along our six sanctuary oyster reefs. Once this increased recruitment occurs, we hope each site experiences a surge in its oyster population that will help build new, naturally-occurring reefs,” Schulte said. “The win-win is increased water quality and enhanced habitat and food for a wide variety of fish and shellfish species that eat oysters or live on oyster reefs.”