Like most of our planet's natural lands, rivers across the globe are currently suffering from the wrath of destructive human activities and climate change. Many are being tainted by pollution and waste dumping, overfishing, and rising temperatures. Some, such as Virginia’s Piankatank River, are suffering from declining oyster populations, which in turn, affects entire ecosystems. That's why conservation organizations are establishing oyster restoration programs. But what do these entail?
Oyster restoration programs not only aim bring back the oyster population itself, but they improve water quality and help ecosystems thrive.
“Water quality and fish is really what it boils down to,” the director of Nature Conservancy of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay Program, Andy Lacatell, told Virginia Mercury. “Oysters improve water quality, and they provide habitat for fish and crabs and other critters that are both recreationally and commercially important.”
What does an oyster restoration program entail?
Oyster restoration is a type of environmental program that rebuilds oyster reefs across major bodies of water, and one is currently taking place in Maryland and Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. Oysters, which were once plentiful in the area, are now few and far between. But according to Southern Maryland Chronicle, state and federal groups are currently investing millions of dollars into bringing back about 2,000 acres of oyster reefs across the Severn, Magothy, South, and Nanticoke River.
The program, which has been nicknamed Operation Build-A-Reef, involves an army of "oyster gardeners," who are required to plant juvenile oysters throughout the rivers. As previously mentioned, these rivers used to be plentiful with bivalves, but oyster reefs in the region started declining in the early 1900s due to ongoing problems involving sewage and waste. Oyster numbers continued dwindling due to bacterial contamination, and eventually, they were almost entirely empty.
Experts hope the oyster population will grow to upwards of one billion oysters, which should, as a result, clean up the rivers.
“If we can get enough oysters in this river, one day, when the moon is right and the candlelight is right, the oysters are going to get frisky and we’ll have a reproductive event,” Severn River Association's executive director, Tom Guay, told Southern Maryland Chronicle. “We’ll double the size of our oyster population naturally.”
Why do oysters positively impact marine ecosystems on such a large scale?
Oyster restoration programs are incredibly important. Beyond restoring the oyster population itself, they restore all kinds of underwater habitats. According to the NOAA, a mature oyster reef (that's at least 15 years old) can provide a home to fish, crabs, and filter feeders including anemones, barnacles, and tunicates. Like a coral reef, they can basically provide for an entire underwater ecosystem.
Oysters also effectively keep rivers and other bodies of waters clean. According to Chesapeake Bay Program, oysters are filter feeders, which means they pump water through their gills and eat the particles of food and nutrients that are trapped on their way through. Chemical contaminants and sediment is suspended, effectively cleaning out the water and clearing the grass for other marine animals. Therefore, oyster restoration programs are an important asset in the world of marine conservation.