RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal plan to restore the native oyster to the Chesapeake Bay identifies 24 tributaries in Virginia and Maryland that provide the best potential to bring back a coveted hard-shell that once was so bountiful its beds were exposed at low tide.
The plan was prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the federally directed effort to restore the environmentally battered estuary, the nation's largest. It concludes that 14 tributaries in Maryland and 10 in Virginia offer the best hope of restoring the oyster.
The tributary restoration and the creation of sanctuaries wouldn't be cheap to achieve: the Army Corps estimates the cost of building oyster beds, seeding and managing them range up to billions of dollars.
Oyster restoration experts said Monday the plan is ambitious but worthwhile considering the hard-shell's role in the bay's health.
Oysters help filter bay waters, provide work for watermen whose numbers have steadily declined, and their reefs provide habitat for hundreds of other species. Like blue crabs and other marine life, the bay's native oyster populations were devastated by overharvesting, loss of habitat and disease.
"I don't think we're going to restore the bay without restoring oysters," said Tommy Leggett, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster restoration specialist in Virginia.
Simply finding the shells to build the sanctuaries will be a challenge, said Rob O'Reilly, fisheries management chief for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The plan, in fact, states that a supply of shells is not available.
The plan recommends a slow approach to restore the native bivalve to the 20-plus tributaries by 2025.
"Restoration should progress tributary by tributary," it states. "Benefits are achieved with each reef and each tributary that is restored."
The plan said the 24 sites were selected on a number of factors, such as salinity and oxygen levels, water depth and predators that feast on spat, or baby oysters, or munch on them in their shells, such as cownose stingrays. They are identified as Tier 1 sites.
Other tributaries and areas of the bay, identified as Tier 2 sites, have physical or biological roadblocks to restoring the shellfish.
Two diseases have undermined the restoration of the native oyster. Dermo and MSX kill oysters when they reach market size at age 3. The tributaries were selected on the oysters' abilities to resist disease in those environments.
Oysters are harvested from the Potomac River and its tributaries down through the bay along the coast, in tidal rivers and into Atlantic waters.
The Tier 1 tributaries include tens of thousands of acres in Maryland's Lower and Upper Choptank Rivers, Tangier Sound, the Severn River, and Manokin River, among others. The sites in Virginia, also involving tens of thousands of acres, include the upper and lower James River, lower Rappahannock River, Pocomoke and Tangier Sound, and the lower York River.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Native Oyster Restoration Master Plan: http://www.nab.usace.army.mil/Missions/Environmental/OysterRestoration/OysterMasterPlan. aspx