(NORFOLK, VA)—Culminating a longtime community-supported effort to improve the health of the Lafayette branch of the Elizabeth River, officials today declared the Lafayette Virginia's first waterway to reach oyster habitat restoration goals. As part of the celebration, project partners led by Elizabeth River Project (ERP) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), as well as residents and other officials, formed a flotilla of boats, kayaks, and paddleboards to plant the final oysters on restored reefs just off the Hermitage Museum & Gardens.
This marked a significant step in efforts outlined in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which set a goal of restoring oysters in 10 Chesapeake Bay waterways by 2025. Supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal and private sponsors, restoration partners in Virginia selected the Lafayette as one of five Virginia tributaries in which to target oyster restoration efforts.
"On behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Program, NOAA is excited to mark this important milestone," said Sean Corson, acting director of NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office. "We were delighted to be part of the effort by funding reef construction and providing needed habitat survey work to guide restoration."
ERP and CBF celebrated this major effort, which ramped up in 2010 when the groups organized dozens of public and private partners and many hundreds of citizens to reduce pollution and restore healthy wildlife in the Lafayette. The results have been remarkable.
- Since 2010 ERP has built 12 new oyster reefs on the Lafayette using a combination of crushed concrete, rock, and recycled oyster shells, bringing the total restored reefs to 32 acres,.
- CBF has seeded these reefs with 70 million baby oysters, called spat, and provided additional structure by placing 1,500 concrete reef balls in the water.
- 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.
- Oyster reef restoration in the Lafayette spans decades, starting with an initial reef funded by Rotary Club of Norfolk in 1998.
"The Chesapeake Oyster Alliance is a multi-partner effort to put 10 billion new oysters into the Bay by 2025. The Lafayette River success is fundamental to this goal," said CBF President William C. Baker. "We thank the entire community, from volunteers to restaurants to government agencies. Every partner deserves credit."
"It's unbelievable that a part of the Elizabeth River, once presumed dead, now leads Virginia for restoration of the native oyster," said ERP Executive Director Marjorie Mayfield Jackson.
Healthy oyster reefs have played a key role in the tributary's revitalization. Oysters serve as natural filters that clean water, protect shorelines from erosion, and create habitat for fish, crabs, and other aquatic life.
Regular surveys of Lafayette reefs show they are thriving, reaching levels well above the density goal of 50 oysters per square meter. Biological sampling has discovered that these reefs are home to at least 25 different species of fish, including sea horses, red drum, striped bass, and speckled trout.
In addition to constructing reefs, ERP has recruited thousands of homeowners to become stewards of the watershed through its River Star Homes program. These homeowners have agreed to take simple steps that lead to a healthier river, such as reducing lawn fertilizers and scooping pet waste. ERP has also teamed up with residents and the City of Norfolk to construct living shorelines, which prevent erosion and often include oyster habitat.
Federal partners, including NOAA and the Chesapeake Bay Program, have provided the funding, guidance, and science necessary to support Lafayette River oyster restoration.
Many other partners have worked together to restore oysters in the Lafayette River, including Christopher Newport University, Hampton Roads Sanitation District, Lafayette Wetlands Partnership, the Rotary Club of Norfolk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Surveys and monitoring the health of Lafayette River oyster reefs will continue in the years to come. Lessons learned here will help inform work on other Virginia tributaries targeted for oyster restoration, which include the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, Lynnhaven River, Piankatank River, Lower York River, and Great Wicomico River. Experience on the Lafayette will also be invaluable for reaching the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance's goal of 10 billion new oysters in the Bay.