Restoring the Reefs
They don’t look like much and they don’t smell so great, either. But when it comes to filtering the Chester River’s waters, oysters rule. That’s why this summer Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society helped the Chester River Association plant about 51,000 of the hard-working bivalves on a sanctuary in Langford Bay.
CES Assistant Director Mike Hardesty ’05, along with Ben Ford, CES special projects assistant, and Rachel Field ’11, program and intern coordinator, worked with Isabel Junkin from the CRA, as well as David Foster, the Chester Riverkeeper, to plant oysters from 255 cages that have hung on 25 docks throughout the river over the winter and spring. Using the CES’s pontoon boat, as well as another boat donated by Chesapeake Boat Lift Service, the volunteers distributed the oysters onto the sanctuary reef in mid-June.
The CES initiated oyster restoration in the Chester River in 2008 with 25 floats at Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge. Those oysters were planted on a new oyster bar at Hail Cove in 2009. A year later, the CES joined with the state-run Marylanders Grow Oysters program to expand the restoration efforts. Early this year, the Chester River Association took over the project, using its river-wide education and outreach programs to draw more people into it and get even more oysters growing.
Once so abundant in the Chesapeake their enormous reefs were navigation hazards, oysters have been decimated by habitat loss and disease. A healthy oyster reef becomes a thriving ecosystem for species like barnacles, sponges, worms, fish and crabs. And because oysters eat by straining microscopic algae from water, one large oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water daily during the warmer months. In the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake, the MGO now has some 30 programs and about 8,000 cages, planting about two million oysters a year.
Participants—individuals, families, schools and communities—take delivery in the fall of wire cages filled with oyster spat (baby oysters) that are attached to bigger shells. They hang the cages from beneath their docks, and over the winter keep an eye on the nursery, occasionally hauling the cages to clean them of barnacles and silt. If all goes according to plan, by late spring the tiny spat have grown to quarter-sized oysters and are ready to take up permanent residence on a restored reef.
“Their impact on the water will be pretty small, but every little bit does help, and the lasting educational value is tremendous,” Foster says.
“It was great to know that we were making a tangible difference in the health of the Bay,” Field says. “We do all these other things like carpooling, buying local food, turning the AC off at night, but moving the oysters had a completely different feel because we were more immediately connected.”