A shell barge is transported for planting. Photo: Andrew Button, VMRC

Va. Oyster Restoration Milestone: 150 Acres of Habitat Complete

Virginia has hit a milestone in oyster restoration. Gov. Ralph Northam says the projects on Virginia’s Piankatank and Great Wicomico rivers, totaling more than 150 acres of oyster habitat combined, are now complete. As a whole he calls it the largest oyster restoration project in the country.

Virginia has now fully restored four tributaries: the Lafayette, the Eastern branch of the Elizabeth, the Piankatank, and the Great Wicomico.

About 500 tons of stone for reefs is deployed by water cannon in the Piankatank in 2021. Photo: Andrew Button, VMRC

Oyster populations are restored by constructing new reefs and planting young oysters to create new ecosystems. In just the past two years, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) has deployed more than 50,000 tons of rock and nearly 100,000 bushels of shell to restore 127 acres of oyster habitat in the Piankatank, along with more than 12,000 tons of rock and 14,000 bushels of shell to restore 24 acres of oyster habitat in the Great Wicomico River. VMRC set a record of 100 acres of oyster reef restored in a single year.

The army of partners that accomplished the restoration include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Elizabeth River Project, Lynnhaven River Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and W.E. Kellum Seafood.

“These restored rivers will provide hundreds of acres of habitat for not just oysters but various other commercially and recreationally important fish and wildlife that depend on a thriving Chesapeake Bay including Virginia’s striped bass and blue crabs,” says VMRC Commissioner Steve Bowman.

Kellum Seafood Vice President Tommy Kellum says the success of the restoration project shows the benefits of environmental and government groups working side by side with the oyster industry to make sure the oyster resource is sustainable. “The Virginia oyster industry is very proud to have been a part of this important effort,” Kellum says. 

Gov. Northam has invested $10 million in oyster restoration over the last four years. The Piankatank, Great Wicomico, and Lafayette rivers, along with the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, have successfully met their oyster habitat restoration goals.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the partners in the project, applauds the groups working together to achieve these goals. Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner says in a statement, “Oysters are a keystone species in the Bay. Restoring oysters in Virginia’s rivers is an investment in clean water and healthy fisheries that will benefit our children and future generations. This dramatic progress is an important example of what can be achieved with successful partnerships among local, state, and federal agencies and other stakeholders.”

-Meg Walburn Viviano