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10 Billion Oysters: A Splashy Goal to Restore Chesapeake Bay

After years of work to bring oysters back, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found funding and interest harder to maintain, says scientist Chris Moore. So it helped form a new partnership that aims to plant 10 billion oysters by 2025 and grow a bigger oyster-farming industry.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Oysters, once abundant in the Chesapeake Bay, are considered a delicacy and were drastically overfished in the 19th and 20th centuries.Kenny Fletcher/Chesapeake Bay Foundation

A new partnership in the Chesapeake Bay region has an ambitious goal: Plant 10 billion oysters in the Bay and its tributaries by 2025.

The Chesapeake 10 Billion Oysters Partnership is made up of 31 organizations around Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the National Aquarium, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and several aquaculture companies such as Harris Creek Oyster Co. It officially launched in February, but Chris Moore, a senior regional ecosystem scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that many of the organizations have already been planting oysters – both for aquaculture and conservation purposes – for years.

Oysters once thrived all along the East Coast of the United States. But in the 1800s and 1900s, they were harvested from Chesapeake Bay by the millions. By the mid-1980s, oyster stocks had crashed – and the Bay’s coastal economies have lost an estimated $4 billion over the past 30 years as a result. Today, Moore says, there is no clear estimate of how many oysters still exist, only that the population is far less than it once was. Their decline has had ecological repercussions: By filtering out algae and particulates, oysters clean the water and allow sunlight to penetrate. The shellfish also stack on top of hard substrates or even each other, building up reefs that provide habitat to other marine animals, including sea bass.

Moore says that the partnership can help bring back the economic and the ecological value of oysters. Oceans Deeply spoke with him about the value of oysters and the difficulties of planting 10 billion of them.

Oceans Deeply: Can you talk about how the 10 Billion Oysters Partnership came together?

Chris Moore: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation [CBF], a number of other partners in the NGO community and state and federal partners have been involved in oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay region for about 20 years now. We had started to see some impressive success. However, we had also noticed the story of the success of oysters was beginning to get pushed to the back a bit, in terms of press coverage and also in terms of funding – especially from some of the historic partners in restoration funding, like the federal government. CBF felt like this was an appropriate time to reinvigorate the discussion around oysters and oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay and put a goal out there that was really a big tent goal.

We had a great program that seeks to restore five tributaries in Maryland waters and Virginia waters, through a program led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s a great goal, but it focuses just on restoration and it focuses just on tributaries. There are lots of partners that want to be involved in the oyster restoration space but maybe don’t work in one of those tributaries.

In addition, we feel like one of the ways that we can bring resources to the oyster restoration field, without it having to come from government sources, is to continue to help aquaculture expand in a thoughtful way in the Chesapeake Bay region. It has done so very well in Virginia, but it hasn’t moved quite as quickly in Maryland.

So we wanted to reinvigorate some of the messaging around oysters, bring more press to this success story, but also ensure that the success that we’ve built thus far can continue to move forward at the same rate in the future and maybe even speed up a bit.

Oceans Deeply: How did you decide on 10 billion?

Sometimes, oyster restoration can be as easy as dumping them overboard. (Kenny Fletcher/Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Moore: What we did when we developed our goal was, we looked at what the current restoration capacity was in the Chesapeake Bay region – that’s both in Maryland and Virginia. We took an effort to say, “OK, what might that look like each year over the next 10 years?” That is a very big part of our goal – simply maintaining the current restoration efforts in the current funding environment will be a significant victory.

What we also did, though, was look at what our restoration pieces added by having a more robust aquaculture goal. So a lot of the growth versus what we’re doing now comes from that sector. We’ve seen big growth in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay, when it comes to aquaculture and tributaries down there, but we think that there is much more potential opportunity for growth in Maryland.

Oceans Deeply: What would you say is the biggest hurdle to reaching this 10 billion number?

Moore: I think that’s a good question, and something where the answer is probably going to change throughout the process. Admittedly, at this point in the process, I think that you would naturally say that continuing our funding is one of the biggest impairments to what we’re doing. The federal government has generally been very supportive in previous years, but the last couple of years, things have obviously gotten much tighter. On the other hand, we’ve seen incredible growth in the aquaculture industry over the last 10 years or so.

Oceans Deeply: What would the Bay look like with 10 billion oysters in it?

Moore: There’s a couple of different ways to look at that. One of things that is great about oysters in addition to that habitat value is the fact that they are filter feeders. They filter [particles] out of the water and package them up and excrete them on the reef, so you help increase water clarity. So you’re getting a tremendous amount of additional filtration out there in the ecosystem, which is something that we really need because the three main problems with the Chesapeake Bay are excess nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. Nitrogen and phosphorous both fuel algae blooms, which oysters help eat.

Oceans Deeply: What is the role of the different partners?

Moore: It’s everything. Some partners will be helping with funding, some will be doing restoration, some will be working on growing the aquaculture industry.

The partnership is very broad and not necessarily focused on specific tasks for each partner group. We obviously want to see the strengths of each partner group come out, but also we don’t want to pigeonhole partners into what they’re doing or what they should be doing.

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