NORFOLK — Local, state and federal leaders gathered to celebrate the revitalization of oyster populations in the Lafayette River Friday morning.
After a brief series of remarks, Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, Reps. Scott Taylor and Bobby Scott and representatives from several federal agencies set sail to help dump buckets of baby oysters onto a newly constructed section of reef.
The event, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Elizabeth River Project was held to celebrate a milestone. After the current 4.5-acre project is completed, the river will be home to a total of 75 acres of oyster habitat, just five short of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goal.
“The Elizabeth River Project has actually been able to build 10 different oyster reefs in the Lafayette River,” said Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, who helped co-found the group. “The Chesapeake Bay Foundation puts live oysters on those reefs. They have so far put 40 million spats — young baby oysters — on these reefs and they’ve added 875 oyster reef balls.”
Prior to restoration efforts, the bay oyster population was less than a percent of what it had been at its peak before decades of over-harvesting and water contamination decimated it. Besides being a “keystone” species that support dozens of other animals, the filter-feeding mollusks play an important role in cleaning the water.
“Back in the day when oysters littered the Chesapeake Bay estimates were that they were able to filter the full bay in somewhere between three and four days,” said Jake Reilly, CBP Director for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “So when we look at water quality as a significant issue, oysters have to be a key part of the solution.”
Though the event was celebratory, the optimism was somewhat diminished by the elephant in the room: President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would eliminate funding for the bay program altogether — as well as scale back funding and operations of some of the agencies involved in bay clean up). Almost all of the speakers referenced the importance of restoring that funding in Congress.
Taylor, a Republican who supports Trump — despite disagreeing with him on a number of issues — submitted an appropriations request in March to restore the program’s full $73 million in federal support.
“There hasn’t been a president’s budget that was passed into law in the history of the nation,” Taylor, the former Navy SEAL, noted at the event.
“We will continue to fight very hard up there to make sure that funding is in place and to make sure that your efforts are not in vain,” he added.
In his remarks, Scott cited former President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address in which he justified giving the Environmental Protection Agency “one of the largest percentage budget increases of any agency… at a time of budgetary restraint” to begin addressing pollution in the bay.
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