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    Oyster numbers see big rebound in Chesapeake bay as Maryland harvest also hits new record

    By Kristian Jaime, Salisbury Daily Times,


    Oysters across Maryland and Virginia waters are experiencing a rebound thanks to ongoing conservation efforts in specific locations.

    The Chesapeake Bay Program has announced that efforts to restore healthy oyster reefs in 10 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025 are on track to be achieved. In the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Chesapeake Bay Program partners, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, as well as several nonprofit organizations and academic institutions, committed to restore native oyster habitat and populations in 10 tributaries by 2025 and ensure their protection.

    “The achievement of this large-scale oyster restoration work over the past decade has become the global model for restoring oyster populations and reef habitat," said Allison Colden, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland executive director. "The success of this work reflects the importance of strong partnerships and innovation in meeting a long-term goal in the larger effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. It’s critically important to build on the success of these oyster restoration projects and maintain momentum by expanding these initiatives to more tributaries."

    Currently, eight of the 10 original tributaries selected for large-scale restoration are considered to be complete. The remaining two the Manokin River in Maryland and the Lynnhaven River in Virginia have 222 and 38 more acres to go, respectively. As of the end of 2023, 1,572 acres of oyster reefs have been restored across the Chesapeake Bay, which is equal to 2,075 football fields.

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    After each tributary was selected for restoration, scientists developed a strategy to guide the process of constructing and seeding reefs, as well as monitoring and evaluating their progress. Monitoring and evaluation take place at three- and six-year intervals, which will continue beyond 2025.

    'Numerous economic opportunities' in oyster conservation efforts

    "Restored oyster reefs support a healthy Chesapeake Bay, numerous economic opportunitiesand strengthen our resilience to climate change for communities across the Bay watershed," Colden said.

    These activities are critical to determine the overall success of the restoration by tracking the recruitment of new oysters, how many survived in the early stages of planting, natural mortality, disease status, growth, reproduction and shell accumulation.

    The monitoring and evaluation phase is underway for the following tributaries: Little Choptank (Md.), Tred Avon (Md.), upper St. Mary’s (Md.), Piankatank (Va.), lower York (Va.), Lafayette (Va.) and Great Wicomico (Va.). Large-scale oyster restoration in Harris Creek (Md.) is considered to be achieved as its monitoring and evaluation phase has been completed.

    In April 2024, the lower York River in Virginia was celebrated as the eighth oyster restoration site to be completed. More than 200 acres of reef was constructed as part of this project.

    With positive numbers across the region, Virginia groups echoed support for such programs.

    "I am immensely proud of the partnership between the Virginia Marine Resources Commission Shellfish Management Division and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office for their crucial role in advancing oyster restoration across these five Chesapeake Bay tributaries," said Jamie L. Green, Commissioner, Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

    Green added there was also a successful completion of the Lower York River Oyster Restoration project. The latest program was aimed at "fortifying Virginia's vital commercial fisher" and sets a national standard for sustainable coastal conservation.

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    Oyster harvesting hits record high for Maryland

    The foundation's announcement came on the heels of a recent report by the Maryland Department of Resources showing that state aquaculture leases have produced a record yield of oysters in 2023.

    According to the department, Maryland’s growing shellfish aquaculture operations harvested a record 94,286 bushels of oysters in 2023, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported. In Maryland, shellfish farming businesses can hold submerged land leases and water column leases, which are for growing shellfish in cages or other containers in the water.

    The state currently leases 7,478 acres of state waters to 466 commercial shellfish operations. Of that total, 6,964.32 acres is for submerged land leases and 514.16 acres for water column leases.

    “Though the shellfish aquaculture harvest is small in comparison to the public fishery, it is growing steadily and the farmer’s product is available throughout the year,” said Brian R. Callam, Ph.D., director of DNR’s Aquaculture and Industry Enhancement Division.

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    The state’s farmed oyster harvest total for 2023 surpassed the 2022 total of 94,257 bushels. By comparison, the state’s public oyster fishery by harvested 548,558 bushels during its 2021-2022 season and 722,850 bushels in the 2022-2023 season.

    "It's exciting to see the progress that has been made toward the goal to restore oyster reef habitat in 10 Chesapeake tributaries by 2025," said Kevin Schabow, acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "All this work is possible thanks to the strong partnership of federal and state agencies, local governments, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions who are committed to restoring the tremendous ecosystem and economic benefits that healthy oyster reefs provide.”

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