The following article first appeared in The Virginian-Pilot earlier this month.
Over the past five years, Virginia's oyster harvest has almost quadrupled, and the dockside value of the harvest has increased by 14 percent in the past 10 years. The resurgence is again putting Chesapeake Bay oysters in seafood stores and restaurants around the region, nation and world.
According to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, every $1 the state spends to replenish oyster shells to manage this fishery yields $7 in economic benefits and an increase in jobs.
Despite these impressive results, there is still a long way to go to achieve restoration goals at a much larger scale--a scale that reflects oysters' natural state and that provides us with the important benefits we need from oyster reefs.
Increased harvest numbers and jobs provide indisputable evidence that a partnership of government, conservation, watermen, industry, private and volunteer groups is succeeding in efforts to restore oysters and improve the fishery in several Virginia rivers, including the Great Wicomico River on the Northern Neck, the Piankatank River in the Middle Peninsula and the Lynnhaven and Lafayette Rivers in Hampton Roads.
Restoration at a larger scale will require everyone playing a part, including the expertise and commitment of the oyster industry, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Over the past 15 years, CBF and its volunteers have grown more than 60 million oysters and placed them on protected reefs and shorelines in Virginia, focusing particularly on the Lafayette and Piankatank rivers.
In the Lafayette alone, the foundation has partnered with the Elizabeth River Project, state agencies and volunteers to collect baseline oyster population data, establish promising restoration areas, and place more than 400 concrete reef balls in the river. A CBF-Elizabeth River Project partnership also has worked to reduce runoff to improve water quality in the Lafayette.
The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Corps of Engineers and industry partners are planning oyster reef restoration in the Piankatank River. An important tributary historically for oysters, the Piankatank has been a focus for land and water restoration by the conservancy and others for more than a decade.
This project will initially restore up to 75 acres of reefs, or roughly 60 football fields, setting the stage for additional large-scale oyster restoration in other rivers.
The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation commend the General Assembly for providing $2 million last year to replenish shells on existing reefs and applaud former Gov. Bob McDonnell for proposing another $2 million in the state budget for such efforts in each of the next two years.
We will work with the legislature to support this funding and to provide $1 million to address restoration of new reefs to ensure Virginia can take advantage of federal funds available for this work.
And both the conservancy and the foundation call upon the McAuliffe administration to work with partners and restore oysters and oyster habitat in at least three Virginia tributaries over the next four years.
In addition to being an economic driver and a delicious hors d'oeuvre--whether raw, roasted, fried or stewed--oysters play crucial ecological roles. They and their habitat are at once pollution filters, homes for crabs and rockfish and buffers against storms.
However, oyster numbers remain only a fraction of what they once were because of historic overharvesting, pollution and disease, and the bay has suffered from the loss of the great ecological services oysters can provide.
Virginia is on the cusp of reversing this trend. The state is a leader in facilitating large-scale restoration in partnership with the federal government and the private sector. We applaud the efforts of the diverse groups already working to make oyster restoration a reality.
--Michael Lipford, Virginia executive director of the Nature Conservancy, and Ann Jennings, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation