In May 2013, CBF's 60-foot-long oyster restoration vessel, the Patricia Campbell, motored down Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River on Maryland's Eastern Shore, as its crew worked a conveyor belt to plant two million juvenile oysters. Over the following years, this scenario repeated, with a total planting by CBF of more than 45 million oyster spat. By fall of 2015, CBF and partners placed an estimated two billion oysters on 350 acres of Harris Creek bottom, making the creek host to one of the largest oyster restoration projects ever undertaken in the Chesapeake Bay. The ultimate goal is a thriving network of reefs in Harris Creek where oysters achieve a critical mass and reproduce without help from man.
A New Approach
The Harris Creek effort is part of a large and innovative oyster restoration project undertaken by a coalition of groups and agencies, which includes the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration N.O.A.A., the Maryland Watermen's Association, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and the Oyster Recovery Partnership. In September 2015, the Chesapeake Bay Office of N.O.A.A. announced the completion of the construction phase of the Harris Creek oyster restoration project.
Over the years, restoration efforts have succeeded in restoring hundreds of acres of individual oyster reefs throughout the Chesapeake Bay area. But bringing back the Bay's once vast network of filter feeders remains a daunting task. And so, a new strategy was started in Harris Creek. Instead of planting young oysters in scattered locations, the coalition focused on planting massive numbers of juveniles in one place so the reefs could repopulate and reinforce each other as they grow. The 350-acre site is protected by a new sanctuary, off limits to harvest, allowing the oysters to live longer and reproduce more. Oysters growing at such a high density as in Harris Creek (now reminiscent of what was seen 50 to 100 years ago) can produce up to 250 times more oyster larvae than oysters on a typical modern bar.
Restoring a Self-Sufficient System
By 2021, we hope to declare Harris Creek as the first tributary in the Chesapeake Bay restored to self-sufficiency. Ultimately, the plan is to restore large oyster reefs in 10 tributaries of the Chesapeake over the next 10 years (through 2025). Two other projects in Maryland and three in Virginia. And that's great news for the health of the Chesapeake as each adult oyster can filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water per day—gobbling up algae, and removing dirt and nitrogen pollution.
By 2025, the 10 super reefs should serve as oyster spawning dynamos that create rich habitat for fish, and filter billions of gallons of water in each tributary. Since oyster larvae drift with the tides for weeks before settling down as spat, these reefs, while off-limits to harvesting, scientists believe they will likely serve as a reproductive engine, helping boost the population of oysters in nearby harvesting areas, as well.
To function properly, the reefs will need to grow vertically. Historic reefs in the Bay were more like jagged skyscrapers, but harvesting knocked them down. Right now, the Harris Creek bar is relatively flat. Watch this video and find out more about the effort to recreate the three-dimensional oyster reefs of the past and why they are called the "coral reefs of the Chesapeake Bay."
Harris Creek once boasted 1,500 acres of oyster reefs. By 2011, there were perhaps only a couple of acres left. Now, it once again holds promise for the Bay's oysters. As CBF's Maryland Eastern Shore Director Alan Girard told The Washinton Post: "The Harris Creek sanctuary...[is] a significant step in Maryland's plan to restore what was once a vast underwater food factory and water filtering system. Everyone will benefit from that restoration."