The Chesapeake Bay Foundation dumped its five-millionth oyster of the summer into the Lafayette River Wednesday morning.
That’s on top of the 16 million the foundation planted in Norfolk last year. The group partners with local restaurants to scoop up recycled oyster shells and then places the shells in large tanks where oyster larvae are dumped and left to attach to the shells. The oysters are then dumped in bushels into the river.
“It’s kind of a slow and steady process,” Kenny Fletcher, the Virginia communications coordinator for the foundation, said in a phone interview. “It’s more of a marathon than a sprint, when you’re talking about planting millions and millions of oysters. You can’t put them in all at once.”
The Lafayette River has been closed to oyster harvesting since the 1920s, according to Jackie Shannon, the Virginia restoration manager for the foundation. Data from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Army Corps of Engineers showed the Lafayette River to have 50 to 60 acres of functioning oyster reefs in 2013.
The river is now estimated to have about 70 acres of functioning oyster reefs. The foundation’s goal is to restore the functioning oyster reef to 80 acres. Shannon, who’s been with the foundation for more than eight years, said anecdotal evidence from residents is heartening. People who’ve lived in the area for years and have not seen many oysters have begun to see them cropping up on the shoreline and on dock pilings, she said.
“I think it’s starting to really reach that tipping point where the bay, the restoration efforts are showing signs of major success,” Shannon said in a phone interview. “I still think it’s desperately out of balance, but I think we’re really seeing anecdotal signs that the bay is getting better, and all the efforts are really worth while.”
One thing sticks out about the baby oysters, or spat, this year, Shannon said. Their number has increased, and this will help to continue to boost the population. Statewide surveys that document oyster population and recruitment patterns have shown an increase in spat this year, she said.
“In two or three years, this might help the oyster industry,” Shannon said.
The oysters dumped by the foundation are considered protected sanctuary reefs, “but the offspring can travel around for a couple of weeks and go help populate areas that can be harvested,” she said.
Shannon is hopeful the organization can reach its 80-acre goal in two summers’ time.
“We are hopeful we can accomplish that within the next two years, hopefully by the end of 2018 would really be ideal. I think we could do that.”