(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—Today, the House Appropriations Committee released details of funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) including $5 million for large-scale oyster restoration and rehabilitation efforts. The Committee went on to state in its report their support for oyster recovery in the Chesapeake Bay. Past USACE funding has been a critical piece to large-scale oyster restoration efforts in the Bay.
Once approved, the money will be used by the Corps to continue work building habitat and planting oysters. The Corps has not received funding for oyster restoration work in the Chesapeake Bay since fiscal 2016.
In the Bay, restoration work has been completed, is underway or planned in Harris Creek and the Tred Avon, Little Choptank, St. Mary's, and Manokin rivers in Maryland as well as the Lafayette, Lynnhaven, Piankatank, Lower York, and Great Wicomico rivers in Virginia. The Maryland legislature recently overrode Governor Larry Hogan's veto of legislation that permanently protects the Maryland restoration sanctuaries from harvest.
The restoration work is necessary to meet commitments in the federal and state partnership Chesapeake Bay Agreement in which Virginia and Maryland agreed to restore and protect oyster populations in ten Bay tributaries by 2025. Oysters are natural water filters and in large numbers they can remove significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from the water. A 2018 study of restored oyster reefs in Harris Creek on Maryland's Eastern Shore determined the reefs have the potential to remove one million pounds of nitrogen from the Bay over a decade. Oysters also provide habitat for crabs, fish, and other marine life.
Research on restored reefs has found that the oysters are thriving, especially when habitat is built first with alternative substrates such as crushed granite. The work has the potential to contribute significantly to oyster recovery in the Bay, which is critical because the native oyster population is estimated to be at less than two percent of historical levels. This decline impacts the bivalves' ecological benefit to the ecosystem as well as watermen who depend on oysters for their livelihood.
In Maryland and Virginia, the restored reefs are protected as sanctuaries and can't be harvested. However, nearby harvest areas could benefit when oysters spawn onto nearby reefs open to harvest.
In response to the federal appropriation, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President (CBF) Will Baker issued the following statement:
"Oysters are critical to the Bay's health just as coral reefs are in the tropics. This is great news for the Bay and large-scale oyster restoration efforts throughout the country.
"Thank you to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger and the entire Bay Delegation for their work to promote this needed federal funding. We also thank Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey and Energy and Water Subcommittee Chair Marcy Kaptur for making oyster restoration a priority of the Corps of Engineers. This investment can help Maryland and Virginia meet the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement and improve the overall health of the Bay."
CBF's Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden added:
"Large reefs composed of millions of oysters provide structure for other oysters to settle on as well as vital habitat for fish, crabs, shrimp, and other marine life. Oysters naturally filter the water, removing algae and nitrogen. They are keystone species in the Bay that also support local economies. We must do everything we can to increase their population."