NORFOLK, Va. – Along a six-acre stretch of the Lafayette River that meanders through the bustle of Norfolk International Terminals, Inc., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is actively constructing a permanent sanctuary home for one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most important inhabitants: the eastern oyster.
The Lafayette River-NIT oyster reef, built with approximately 14,000 cubic yards of fossilized shell, will soon become the fourth in a six-sanctuary, 16-acre permanent oyster reef initiative that the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began last October.
“Six million spat-on-shell oysters, which are baby oysters set on oyster shells in a hatchery, will then be seeded onto the oyster reefs this spring,” said Keith Lockwood, Norfolk District’s Technical Support Section chief.
The sanctuary oyster reefs project is the second phase of a 10-year, $70 million, 411-acre environmental mitigation plan, which is aimed at offsetting the ecological impacts associated with the Corps’ Craney Island Eastward Expansion, or CIEE, project.
The CIEE project, which is expanding Craney Island with dredged material fill that will serve as the base for a new port terminal, is expected to impact the bottom of the Elizabeth River.
The project’s environmental 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 Virginia Port Authority, partnering with the Corps, completed first phase of mitigation last November, with an 11-acre wetlands creation project at Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth.
The Elizabeth and Lafayette rivers benefit from the second phase, which is aimed at restoring a sustainable oyster population.
After the NIT reef, the Corps will construct one in the western branch of the Elizabeth River at Baines Creek, and one in the southern branch of the river at Blows Creek -- the Corps has completed oyster reefs at Hoffler Creek in Portsmouth, Va. and Gilligan Creek in Chesapeake, Va.
The staff at Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation said they couldn’t have imagined a more eco-friendly neighbor.
“The 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.”
As permanent oyster sanctuary reefs, the areas will be off-limits to shellfish harvesting.
“Once the baby spat 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.
“The Port of Virginia is honored to partner with the Corps in the mitigation plan for the eastward expansion at Craney Island,” said Jodie Love, VPA’s community relations manager. “An estimated 10 percent of jobs in Virginia are port-related, and we all have benefitted greatly from these waterways. It’s very exciting to witness phase two of the plan with the oyster reef creation at Lafayette, and to give back to the river that has given us so much.”
In areas where little or no shell exists, construction of the reefs will change the habitat into one that contributes to oyster growth, Corps officials said.
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.”
The project is set for completion in June.