Someday soon, maybe residents will again be able to enjoy the Norfolk oyster

After years of work, Lafayette branch oyster reefs are rebuilt and replanted

Elizabeth River Project construction contractors build an oyster reef in Knitting Mill Creek on the Lafayette, one of 12 oyster reefs constructed by the group in the waterway since 2010 (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Elizabeth River Project)
Elizabeth River Project construction contractors build an oyster reef in Knitting Mill Creek on the Lafayette, one of 12 oyster reefs constructed by the group in the waterway since 2010 (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Elizabeth River Project)

NORFOLK — Someday in the near future, maybe – just maybe, residents here will, after nearly 100 years, be able to enjoy delicious oysters grown in at least one of the city’s waterways.

On Monday representatives of the Elizabeth River Project, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and others will row a flotilla canoes, kayaks, and boats out onto the Lafayette branch of the Elizabeth River and plant oysters in some of the 12 new oyster reefs that have been built since 2010.

The planting will mark the culmination of a years-long effort by local, state, and federal partners, and will also satisfy a local commitment of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which established the goal of restoring oysters in 10 Chesapeake Bay tributaries, spanning five states that boarder the bay, and includes the District of Columbia.

“It’s kind of incredible really,” said Marjorie Mayfield, ERP’s executive director. “The Elizabeth River was once thought to be a dead river.”

The restoration of the oyster reefs makes the Lafayette the first of its kind in Virginia.

Mayfield said that since the 1920s, there has been a ban on eating oysters from the Elizabeth River and its Lafayette branch.

Industrial pollution and sewage that was dumped or simply seeped into the river decimated the ecosystem and made the oysters that managed to survive dangerous to eat.

A close-up look at one of the oyster reefs (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program)
A close-up look at one of the oyster reefs (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program)

Beginning in 2009-2010 the ERP and CBF took the lead in local efforts to bring area waterways back to life, and it began with the Lafayette.

“We felt like it was closer to getting healthy than some of the other parts of the Elizabeth River,” Mayfield said. “Our goal was to restore it as best we could over the next decade or so.”

The partners developed an action plan, which included rebuilding reefs for the oyster populations. Using a combination of crushed concrete, rock, and recycled oyster shells, over the years they’ve been able to construct 32 acres of restored reefs in the Lafayette.

Close-up look at an oyster that measures over five inches (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program)
Close-up look at an oyster that measures over five inches (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program)

It was a task Mayfield said was all-the-more difficult because of the lack of existing oyster shells.

The CBF has seeded the reefs with 70 million baby oysters – called spat – and provided additional structure by placing 1,500 concrete reef balls in the water.

The reefs serve as natural filters that clean water, protect shorelines from erosion, and create habitat for fish, crabs, and aquatic life.

Mayfield said they have observed at least 27 different kinds of fish around the oyster reefs.

Reef restoration efforts in the Lafayette span decades, dating to a reef that was funded by Rotary Club of Norfolk in 1998.

The restoration efforts, combined with 48 acres of existing “historic reefs,” bring the Lafayette to its 80-acre target for oyster habitat. This year CBF and ERP finished the final five acres of reef with support from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant.

Mayfield said their success is because of more than 2,000 partners as well as the ERP’s dues-paying membership.

Volunteers set up “oyster castles” to build an oyster habitat alongside a River Star Home earlier this year (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Elizabeth River Project)
Volunteers set up “oyster castles” to build an oyster habitat alongside a River Star Home earlier this year (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Elizabeth River Project)

Another program that came from the action plan is the River Star designation: It’s a program that encourages efforts by homeowners and businesses to keep the city’s waterways clean and healthy, and provides information and guidance on how they can do so.

Currently there are some 4,750 River Star Homes in the city.

Monday’s oyster planting will be followed by a community oyster roast at the Hermitage Museum and Gardens starting at 11:30 a.m., and it will be followed by remarks from various speakers at noon.

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