Restoration reefs built in Norfolk’s Lafayette River are thriving beyond expectations, with hundreds of oysters found growing per square meter during a recent survey by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).
An oyster reef must have at least 50 oysters per square meter to ensure a healthy reef ecosystem and meet standards set by the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program. All three reefs surveyed by CBF in December 2021 far surpassed those standards, with oyster densities ranging from 156 to 365 oysters per square meter. The reefs included oysters of various ages and sizes, proving that oysters are reproducing.
“When restoration ramped up on the Lafayette River more than a decade ago, some doubted that this polluted urban waterway could really come back. Now it’s amazing to see reefs in the middle of Norfolk filled with oysters filtering water and creating habitat for fish, crabs, and shrimp,” said Peyton Mowery, CBF Virginia Oyster Restoration Outreach Coordinator.
“While oyster restoration work was completed in the Lafayette nearly four years ago, these investments continue to pay dividends in terms of improved water quality and more ecologically important habitat for a host species include fish and crabs,” Mowery said.
In 2018 the Lafayette became the first river in Virginia to meet goals for oyster habitat restoration, which have been set for 11 tributaries across the Chesapeake Bay. As part of efforts in the Lafayette, CBF planted more than 40 million spat-on-shell oysters on crushed concrete reef bases constructed in the river by partner Elizabeth River Project (ERP).
In addition, CBF and partners have placed hundreds of reef balls in the river to provide vitally important three-dimensional habitat. ERP has installed over 4,500 oyster castles at River Star Homes on the Lafayette. The 12 constructed restored oyster reefs total 32 acres.
Oysters on restoration reefs have shown impressive growth. For example, the oyster reef near the Hampton Boulevard bridge had on average 92 oysters per square meter in a 2017 survey, which grew to 365 oysters in the 2021 survey. The reef at the mouth of Knitting Mill Creek had 52 oysters per square meter in 2017, which has grown to 253 oysters per square meter in the 2021 survey. The oyster reef near the Virginia Zoo had 100 oysters per square meter in 2017, which grew to 156 oysters per square meter in 2021.
These impressive numbers of thriving oyster populations in the Lafayette River also help the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance realize its ambitious goal of adding 10 billion new oysters to the Bay and its rivers by 2025.
To determine average oyster densities, CBF staff wade out to the reefs at low tide and hand-count the number of oysters per square meter on at least three locations in each reef. CBF completes these surveys annually to determine whether the reefs meet standards for a thriving, self-sustaining oyster population.
As the oysters grow, they form reef structures that provide habitat for aquatic life. Annual surveys of aquatic life near Lafayette reefs have found blue crabs, brown shrimp, stingrays, seahorses, and squid.
“The oyster restoration effort in the Lafayette River is a model for the nation on how to get diverse partners across the community to fully restore oyster habitat back to an urban river,” said Joe Rieger, Elizabeth River Project Deputy Director of Restoration. “We were honored to work with homeowners, schools, business, state and federal agencies to achieve this restoration and now our home river has thriving reefs for wading birds and fin fish.”
Founded by CBF in 2018, the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance is a coalition of over 80 non-profits, oyster growers, businesses and academic institutions working to bring back the Chesapeake oyster. The earlier work on the Lafayette was also only achieved through solid partnerships working together toward the goal of restoring the river.
ERP and CBF began organizing the community to restore the Lafayette branch of the Elizabeth River in 2009. A Small Watershed Grant, administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), in cooperation with the US EPA and the federal Chesapeake Bay Program, provided the catalyst federal funding that allowed the non-profits to launch a community-wide plan for the Lafayette in 2011.
The progress since then is thanks to generous grant funding and a collaborative effort among many additional partners, including the City of Norfolk, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Restore America's Estuaries, NFWF, the Army Corps of Engineers, Lafayette Wetlands Partnership, Christopher Newport University, Hampton Roads Sanitation District, the Rotary Club of Norfolk, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
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