Maryland Shellfish Aquaculture Conference on February 12

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Maryland’s oyster farming industry has expanded rapidly over the past decade bringing advances in technology and changes in regulatory policy that can be difficult to keep up with.

The Maryland Shellfish Growers Network is here to help.

On Feb. 12, the network and its partners will host the Maryland Shellfish Aquaculture Conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at 173 Jennifer Road in Annapolis. The event is designed to give current oyster farmers and individuals interested in starting their own businesses the latest information about government policies, marketing, and aquaculture technology.

The conference runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and registration is $35. Registration for members of the Maryland Shellfish Growers Network is free. The schedule is broken down into hour-long discussions led by industry experts, scientists, and environmental policymakers. Lunch and refreshments will be provided to attendees at no additional cost.

The event is also intended to provide networking opportunities to oysters farmers and others involved in the aquaculture industry. Oyster farming has grown exponentially in Maryland since the state overhauled aquaculture laws in 2010, which made it easier and less expensive for entrepreneurs to lease Chesapeake Bay bottom to grow oysters. A University of Maryland study found that in 2016 the industry produced about 60,000 bushels of oysters in Maryland—more than 18 times the 3,300 bushels the state’s oyster farmers produced in 2012.

“At the Maryland Shellfish Aquaculture Conference we’ll discuss the latest science for improving oyster yields, how to effectively market your product to grow sales, as well as the challenges related to ongoing conflicts between oyster farming operations, recreational boaters, and waterfront property owners,” said Allison Colden, Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who is helping to organize the conference. “As the industry grows the Maryland Shellfish Growers Network aims to help oyster farmers keep up with the latest advances.”

Individuals interested in attending the conference should register on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website before Feb. 5. If you need additional information, please contact Allison Colden at acolden@cbf.org or 410-268-8816.

2018 Bay Health Score Drops as Massive Rains Increase Pollution

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The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) biennial State of the Bay report score decreased one point this year to 33, equivalent to a  D+. The drop was largely due to increased pollution and poor water clarity caused by record regional rainfall.

“The good news is that scientists are pointing to evidence of the Bay’s increased resiliency and ability to withstand, and recover from, these severe weather events. And this resiliency is a direct result of the pollution reductions achieved to date. In addition, we did see increases in scores for dissolved oxygen and Bay grasses since 2016, but the recovery is still fragile,” said CBF’s Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee.

Established in 1998, CBF’s State of the Bay Report is a comprehensive measure of the Bay’s health. CBF scientists compile and examine the best available data and information for 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries. CBF scientists assign each indicator an index score from 1-100. Taken together, these indicators offer an overall assessment of Bay health.

“This is a challenging time for Bay restoration. Massive environmental rollbacks in clean-water and clean-air regulations proposed by the Trump Administration may make achieving a restored Bay more difficult,” said CBF President William C. Baker.“Another restoration hurdle is the fact that science expects more extreme weather events in the future as the result of climate change.”

Two of the 13 indicators, dissolved oxygen and Bay grasses improved. In the pollution category, toxics were unchanged, while water clarity, and nitrogen and phosphorus pollution were worse. In the habitat category, scores for Bay grasses and resource lands improved, and buffers and wetlands remained the same. In the fisheries category, scores for oysters, crabs, and rockfish remained the same, while the score for shad declined.

This year’s score is still far short of the goal to reach 40 by 2025 and ultimately a 70, which would represent a saved Bay. The unspoiled Bay ecosystem described by Captain John Smith in the 1600s, with its extensive forests and wetlands, clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation serves as the theoretical benchmark and would rate a 100 on CBF’s scale.

The Clean Water Blueprint requires the Bay jurisdictions to decrease pollution to local creeks, rivers, and the Bay. State and local governments have committed to achieve specific, measurable reductions. The states agreed to have the 60 percent of the needed programs and practices in place by 2017, and to complete the job by 2025.

Of the primary Bay states, Virginia and Maryland were close to meeting the 2017 goals but need to accelerate pollution reduction from agriculture and urban/suburban runoff. Pennsylvania continues to be far short of its goals, mostly as a result of falling behind in addressing pollution from agriculture.

“Pennsylvania’s farmers are facing tough economic times and can’t implement the necessary practices on their own. The Commonwealth must join Maryland and Virginia to fund proven clean water initiatives to help farmers,” Baker added. “If the state legislature does not fund efforts to reduce pollution in its next session, EPA must hold Pennsylvania accountable. In addition, we are standing with The Maryland Department of the Environment to require that Exelon mitigates for the downstream water quality damage caused by their operation of the Conowingo Dam, which changes the timing and form of pollution reaching downstream waters. One cost-effective mitigation option is to help reduce the pollution coming down the Susquehanna River before it can ever reach the dam.”

CBF’s Virginia Executive Director Rebecca Tomazin said:

“The State of the Bay report comes as Virginia’s legislators are preparing to make decisions in the General Assembly that will determine the health of our rivers and the Bay for years to come.

“Governor Northam has proposed a historic investment in farm conservation practices and reducing polluted runoff from Virginia’s cities and suburbs. The General Assembly has long recognized the importance of restoring the Bay, and their continued support is vital to ensuring the Bay’s recovery doesn’t backslide. Legislation is also needed to increase the ability of local governments to use trees to improve water quality in local streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

“The outcome of this General Assembly session is vital to the future of the Bay. By working together, we can restore our waters and improve the economy and protect the quality of life here in the Commonwealth.”

CBF’s Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost said:

“Cleaning up the Bay is long-term and difficult.  Setbacks happen. In Maryland, we’re grappling with heavy rains this year that caused extended high flows in the Susquehanna River, which flushed debris, sediment, and other pollutants into the Bay. We’re also beginning to understand the implications of the state’s new oyster stock assessment that showed the oyster population in Maryland’s portion of the Bay has fallen by half since 1999.

“Yet despite these setbacks, the ecosystem is showing resilience to this year’s environmental stressors due to increasing growth of underwater vegetation and robust investments in land preservation.  While we can celebrate these successes, we must also focus on making policy changes to ensure the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint can handle the realities of changing weather patterns that challenge the Bay’s long-term health. Expanding Maryland’s protections for oysters and forests are changes leaders should pursue to make the Bay more resilient.”

CBF’s Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell said:

“There’s a lot of work left to be done in Pennsylvania.  And the unprecedented rains of last year, which threaten to become the new normal, left farmers and families without their crops, their homes, or in some cases, even their lives.

“But there is a growing energy and enthusiasm that the Commonwealth can meet the challenge.  More farm conservation practices have been found than were known, communities are banding together to address stormwater issues, and long-term river studies are showing improving trends.  Poised to capitalize on this momentum, the Commonwealth has led a collaborative, stakeholder-based effort to create the third iteration of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

“Now is the time for Pennsylvania’s elected leaders to accelerate this momentum by investing in the priority practices, places, and partnerships that will bring the plan into reality. 

“Investing in nature-based efforts, like strategically placed trees alongside streams and streets, rotational grazing, and farm field cover crops will result in more productive farms, vibrant communities, healthy streams, and a saved Bay.”

In summary, Baker added, “The Blueprint is a road map to a restored Bay. If the states and EPA do their part, we can succeed in achieving the greatest environmental success the world has ever seen.”

Second Annual Oysters and Wine on the Eastern Shore Jan. 27

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Maryland-farmed oysters, wine, champagne, and beer—what more do you need to satisfy the soul on a late January afternoon?

You can have them all and Smith Island cake too at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s second annual Oysters and Wine on the Eastern Shore. The event takes place from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 27 at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in Easton. Tickets are $35 and advance registration is required because the event is expected to sell out.

This year’s event will feature oysters from three Maryland oyster farms—Chestertown’s Orchard Point Oyster Company, Tilghman’s Fisherman’s Daughter Oysters, and Toddville’s Honga Oyster Company.

All three businesses are part of the state’s burgeoning oyster farming industry. The industry grew from a nascent start in Maryland less than a decade ago when upstart operations produced about 4,000 bushels of farmed oysters in 2012. That number has since ballooned to more than 64,000 bushels from oyster farms in 2016, according to the latest annual harvest data released by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Oyster farming presents an alternative model to Maryland’s long tradition of watermen scouring for wild oysters from the Chesapeake Bay’s public bottom. Watermen with farming businesses lease acres of the Bay bottom from the state to plant and grow their oysters. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes expanding the model can reduce harvest pressure on the state’s dwindling native oyster population and help it recover.

Since 1999, the oyster population in Maryland’s portion of the Bay has declined from about 600 million oysters to the current population of 300 million, according to the state’s new oyster stock assessment released in November. Wild oyster harvests continue to significantly outpace harvests from aquaculture operations—for example, about 224,000 bushels were harvested from public bottom in 2016, nearly four times the amount from oyster farms.

The January 27 event will celebrate locally farmed oysters by pairing them with a variety of wines, champagne, and local craft beer. There will also be hors d’oeuvres and live music. Oyster farmers and scientists will be on hand to answer attendees’ questions. The Eastern Shore Conservation Center is at 114 South Washington St. in Easton.

If you have any questions about the event, please contact Hilary Gibson at hgibson@cbf.org. Additional information about Oysters and Wine on the Shore can be found at the event’s website.

CBF’s ‘VoiCeS’ Adult Education Classes Will Be Held in Centreville

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Are you interested in learning how you can do more to help the Chesapeake Bay?

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation can help! Join other people who care about the environment and come “back-to-school” for a six-week course taught by scientists, non-profit leaders, and others about how to improve water quality on the Eastern Shore and in the rest of the Bay’s watershed.

Classes will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday evenings from October 9 until November 13 at Wye River Upper School in Centreville. Registration is open on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website.

Attendees will be able to learn about Bay science and fisheries, pollution problems and solutions, and how volunteers can help restoration efforts in their local waters and the Bay.

In this professionally taught course, you will learn from experts about crabs and oysters, farm and urban issues, Bay history and ecology, and how to play a personal role in the future of clean water restoration.

Volunteers as Chesapeake Stewards (VoiCeS) is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) most comprehensive adult education program available to the public. This year CBF is offering the program in Centreville for the first time! Registration costs $25 per person or $40 per couple and includes one Saturday field trip – a guided canoe paddle on the Corsica River.

Space is limited, so register now for a deep-dive exploration of issues that affect the Chesapeake Bay. Registration is required at www.cbf.org/voices-qa. For more information, contact CBF Grassroots Field Specialist Hilary Gibson at hgibson@cbf.org or 410-543-1999.

Rod and Reef Slam Fishing Tournament Returns for Second Year

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Anglers seeking a unique experience on the Chesapeake Bay should register now for the second annual Rod & Reef Slam on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The fishing tournament taking place Saturday, Sept. 22, on six oyster restoration sites near the mouth of the Choptank River, is meant to highlight the diversity of fish that thrive near oyster reefs. So rather than be rewarded for catching a specific large fish, anglers in this catch-and-release fishing tournament are tasked with trying to catch as many different species of fish to win prizes such as Engle coolers, Costa Sunglasses gift cards, Lyon Distilling Rum, and fishing tackle. If anglers tie on the number of species caught, the size of their fish will determine the winners.

Last year, anglers caught dozens of fish from 10 different species such as rockfish, white perch, weakfish and spotted seatrout.

“Historically the live bottom provided by three-dimensional oyster reefs produced an amazingly diverse fishing community,” said John Page Williams, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s senior naturalist and a seasoned angler. “Our aim here is to bring that rich diversity back to our recreational and commercial fisheries. We are starting to see that return in the reef ball field in the Choptank River and other oyster restoration areas.”

The tournament takes place from 6:30 a.m. until fishing lines will be required to be out of the water at 2:30 p.m. An after party and awards show will take place from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Lowes Wharf Marina Inn in Sherwood. There are three divisions—powerboat, kayak, and youth. The entry fee is $50 for the powerboat and kayak division and youth can participate for free if they have a Coastal Conservation Association youth membership, which is $10 per year. The registration price covers the entry fee, after party food, giveaways, entertainment, and access to a cash bar. Tickets for just the afterparty are $10 and include food and entertainment.

The tournament is being co-sponsored by Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.The title sponsor is Curtis Stokes & Associates, Inc.

Participating anglers in this tournament will fish on their choice of six oyster restoration reef areas—Tilghman Island Reef just outside of Knapps Narrows, Clint Waters Reef at Cooks Point, reef balls at the Bill Burton Fishing Pier near Cambridge, and three different oyster sanctuaries in Harris Creek, the Tred Avon River and the Little Choptank River. Before releasing the fish they catch, anglers will use the iAngler app to record the size and location of their catch.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in partnership with groups such as Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and NOAA have worked to preserve and grow oyster reefs in the Bay to improve water quality.  Oysters are a keystone species in the Chesapeake. They filter water and the crevices between the groupings of bivalves provide habitat for other critters such as small fish, crabs, and grass shrimp.

Small fish, such as blennies, gobies and skillet-fish that feed on the reef are natural bait for much bigger fish such as rockfish and perch as well as blue crabs.

The locations chosen for the fishing tournament are all places where conservation groups have planted hundreds of thousands of oysters over the past decade.  For example, this summer the Chesapeake Bay Foundation planted more than 120 reef ballsin the Choptank River, while more than 1,500 reef balls have been planted at Cook’s Point.

The Harris Creek oyster sanctuary is a productive example of restoration efforts. Since 2011, 350 acres of water bottom have been planted with oysters. A NOAA study released last year found that the vast majority of planted oysters were forming into stable, healthy reefs.

The Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a group of more than 40 local and regional conservation groups, aquaculture businesses, and academic partners, is working to expand oyster populations in the Chesapeake by adding 10 billion new oysters in Virginia and Maryland waters by 2025.

However, more needs to be done to draw attention to the important water quality and recreational benefits oysters provide to the Chesapeake Bay. The Rod & Reef Slam is meant to remind people about the ecosystems oyster reefs create and the recreational fishing opportunities they can provide.

More information here or at 443-482-2097 or hgibson@cbf.org.

National Bohemian Kicks Off Summer “Tabs for Crabs” Program

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National Bohemian Beer Company today announced the rollout of its second annual summer Tabs for Crabs program, in which of-age consumers across the Mid-Atlantic can collect and return their National Bohemian beer tabs for a cause. For each red,crab-etched can tab that is collected and returned before October 1, National Bohemian will donate 10 cents to The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s® local blue crab research and habitat restoration efforts, with a total maximum donation goal of $10,000.

The National Bohemian Tabs for Crabs program is underway in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Consumers are encouraged to save their red etched tabs found on 12oz. and 16oz. National Bohemian beer cans throughout the summer, or to start a community collection at their favorite local establishment where Natty Boh is sold. Collected tabs can be mailed or dropped off locally to National Bohemian Tabs for Crabs, 3600 O’Donnell Street, Suite 185, Baltimore, MD 21122 by October 1.

“The response we received from the 2017 inaugural Tabs for Crabs program was truly a testament to the importance of our Bay lifestyle,” said C-Mo Molloy, National Bohemian brand manager and Baltimore native. “We knew this would be a great partnership, but what blew us away was the overwhelming response of 85,000 Tabs for Crabs collected in the first year. We generated a whirlwind of buzz this spring around the launch of our new beer, National Bohemian Crab Shack Shandy, so we are hoping to harness that excitement to drive increased awareness and continue to give back to this beautiful place we call home,” added Molloy.

“Given the importance of a healthy Chesapeake Bay to our environment and regional economy, we are grateful that National Bohemian has stepped up as a leader in the community,” said Taryn Dwan of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation®. “Partnerships such as this allow us to promote our common mission and work to engage new audiences in the fight to Save the Bay.”

For more information, please visit NationalBohemian.com.

About National Bohemian Beer Company

National Bohemian Beer was first brewed in Baltimore, MD in 1885. Known by locals as “Natty Boh” this crisp, refreshing, & easy-to-drink American Lager inspires a lifestyle of true happiness when we choose to Live Pleasantly. Mr. Boh, the one-eyed, mustachioed face of the brand is recognized as the affable icon of fun & simple moments of joy around the Chesapeake Bay region. Supporting hometown sports and numerous local non-profits, Natty Boh is a staple of the local community in the Mid-Atlantic. Most recently, National Bohemian successfully launched its first new beer in over 30 years, a summer seasonal called Crab Shack Shandy that garnered 16M impressions during its first 14 weeks in market. To learn more, please visit NationalBohemian.com.

About Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Founded in 1967, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is the largest independent conservation organization dedicated solely to saving the Bay. Serving as a watchdog, CBF fights for effective, science-based solutions to the pollution degrading the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. To learn more, please visit cbf.org.

EPA Bay Cleanup Midpoint Report Shows Pennsylvania Threatens Success

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Today, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its midpoint assessment of efforts to reduce pollution and restore water quality in local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. In that assessment, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) found important progress, but troubling trends as well.  Specifically, Pennsylvania’s poor progress in reducing pollution threatens local rivers and streams as well as the recovery of downstream waters of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.

“This is a critical moment for Bay restoration. Halfway to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint’s 2025 goal, it’s time to get serious about finishing the job,” said CBF President William C. Baker.  “Pennsylvania is far behind. The Commonwealth must fund proven clean water initiatives specifically associated with helping farmers.  If the state legislature does not fund efforts to reduce pollution in its next session, EPA must hold Pennsylvania accountable.”

The federal-state Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, established in 2010, includes pollution limits, state-specific plans to achieve those limits, two-year milestones to evaluate progress, and consequences for failure. The states also committed to having practices in place to achieve 60 percent of the needed reductions by 2017, and to finish the job by 2025.

All states in the Bay watershed, except New York, have met goals for reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants. Maryland and Virginia are close to reaching overall goals, but are significantly behind in reducing pollution from urban/suburban runoff. Pennsylvania is significantly off track meeting its goals for agriculture and urban/suburban runoff. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, which are together responsible for achieving roughly 95 percent of the remaining pollution, have fallen short in reducing nitrogen pollution from agriculture.

“Progress reducing pollution from agriculture must be accelerated. Many farmers are taking steps to reduce pollution, but they lack the resources and funding to do more. Legislation proposed by Senators Casey and Van Hollen as part of the federal Farm Bill could help make that happen,” said Beth McGee, CBF Director of Science and Agricultural Policy. “Progress in reducing pollution from urban and suburban runoff not only continues to lag, but it is the only major source of pollution that is increasing.”

Nature is signaling that the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working: Dead zones are shrinking; Underwater grasses are at record levels; Crabs and oysters are making a comeback. However, Pennsylvania’s lack of progress threatens success. Recognizing this, in early 2016 the Commonwealth announced a reboot of its strategy to clean up its waterways. While this has made some important headway, many challenges remain. The biggest barrier continues to be inadequate investment from Pennsylvania.

“In the next legislative session, Pennsylvania must enact a dedicated cost-share program for farmers that supports conservation practices like streamside forested buffers. This would directly help family farms by keeping vital soils and nutrients on the land instead of in the water,” said CBF Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. “The result would be cleaner streams and healthier, more productive soils. It’s a win-win. But unless Pennsylvania’s legislature increases investment in reducing pollution, EPA will have no choice but to act.”

The Bay jurisdictions are starting to work on the third iteration of their clean-up plans that will describe the actions they will take between now and 2025 to finish the job. These plans must be detailed and comprehensive while addressing existing shortfalls. Creating local pollution-reduction goals will be critical, as will efforts to prioritize and target resources to the areas contributing the most pollution.

EPA has outlined a comprehensive list of their expectations for the next round of clean-up plans including identifying shortfalls that need to be addressed in each state. These expectations call on the jurisdictions to clearly identify the need for greater funding, technical assistance, regulatory oversight, and solutions necessary to achieve the 2025 goals. Continued state collaboration and investment is especially critical as the prospect of Trump Administration roll-backs of air pollution regulations on power plants and vehicles could make achieving these goals even more difficult

“The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working because it has teeth.” Mr. Baker said. “If EPA holds Pennsylvania accountable, we may see the greatest environmental success story of our time: Saving the Chesapeake Bay and its local rivers and streams.”

Man-Made Oyster Reef Near Key Bridge is Thriving

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A man-made oyster reef finished a year ago next to Fort Carroll in the middle of the Patapsco River is in excellent condition. Recent monitoring results found most of the three million young oysters surviving and growing rapidly. The results are another encouraging milestone in an effort to return oysters to Baltimore waters, and throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

“Oysters are resilient creatures. If we give them the habitat they need they will settle down and form a community, begin filtering our water, and provide a home for other marine life,” said Dr. Allison Colden, Maryland Senior Fisheries Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). “Baltimore is demonstrating it can be a flourishing home for underwater life.”

CBF is a member of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a multi-year, collaborative effort to add 10 billion new oysters by 2025 in Virginia and Maryland waters. The Alliance is designed to spark governmental action, public attention, and funding to accelerate ongoing oyster recovery efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo credit: Michael Eversmier

To that end, the oyster reef was planted last spring next to Fort Carroll, the Civil War fort built on an island near the Key Bridge. Chunks of granite were used as a bed for the reef. Tons of old oyster shell were piled on top of the stone. On each shell was attached an average of 12 juvenile oyster “spat” barely visible to the eye. The spat were set on the oyster shells at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, and placed on the reef by the organization’s restoration vessel, the Patricia Campbell.

A year later, about 75 percent of those baby oysters have survived their first winter, and have grown to an average of more than an inch and a half in size, some to nearly three inches. Another encouraging sign, divers found the oysters thriving despite silt in the river. In fact, the reef was filled with large clumps of oysters growing vertically above the silt.

The construction, seeding, and monitoring of the 1.1 acre reef was supported by the Maryland Department of Transportation Port Administration, Maryland Environmental Service, and the Abell Foundation.

Baltimore was once a hub of the commercial oyster industry in Maryland. Oysters also were known to grow in the Patapsco, at least near the mouth. But the oyster population is now a fraction of its historic size, a victim of overfishing, disease, and pollution.

Knowing that history, what divers observed at the Fort Carroll reef and recorded with underwater photography was all the more exciting. Live oysters were feeding and growing. And the reef already was attracting other marine life, such as anemone, barnacles, mussels, mud crabs, and grass shrimp. In all, at least 13 different species were observed living on the new reef. This relative abundance of life demonstrates what scientists have known for years: oysters are a “keystone species” in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem; their reefs act as primary building blocks of the food chain.

The new reef, a little more than an acre, is near to a companion reef started in 1995. That older reef has been gradually built over the years, with about 150,000 oysters being added each of the past few years through the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership and the Living Classrooms Foundation. Business representatives, students, and other volunteers grow oysters in cages at various sites around the Inner Harbor, and then deploy the juvenile oysters at the companion reef. The Partnership aims to have at least 5 million oysters added total to both reefs by 2020. CBF and the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative are founding members of the group.

CBF experiment: a large man-made oyster reef that revives the dead zone

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The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) today began a first-of-its kind experiment in Maryland: build and monitor a giant man-made oyster reef to test whether such reefs can break up dead zones of low oxygen. The project is part of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance initiative to add 10 billion new oysters to the Chesapeake by 2025.

“We know historic oyster reefs grew up into the water column. They likely looked more like mini Manhattan skylines than the flat oyster beds we think of today. This project will test whether man-made oyster reefs with vertical structure agitate currents and break up dead zones” said CBF Maryland Fisheries Scientist Dr. Allison Colden.

CBF today deployed the first of 240 concrete reef balls at a site above the Rt. 50 Severn River Bridge. The balls are only two-feet tall, but they might offer enough resistance to existing river currents to create turbulence, and increase dissolved oxygen. Traditional oyster reefs would have grown much higher, but those were knocked down over many decades of oyster harvesting.

CBF will monitor the reef through the summer, in partnership with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the Naval Academy.

Research already has demonstrated that oyster reefs with vertical structure create rich habitat for fish and other marine life, and also filter water. This reef project will test whether such reefs offer the additional benefit of breaking up low-oxygen zones where fish and other creatures can’t live.

The site of the project is called Winchester Lump. It is a rise in the river bottom where an historic oyster reef once existed. In the summer oxygen levels plunge at the Lump as they do in many areas around the Bay as algae blooms fed by nutrient pollution die off and rob the water of oxygen. Dr. Andrew Muller of the Oceanography Department of the U.S. Naval Academy, and CBF Senior Naturalist John Page Williams have documented hypoxia at the site. With concrete balls added to the top of the Lump, the reef may achieve enough height to agitate currents, and increase oxygen levels.

The reef balls also were set with an estimated 400,000 baby oysters at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side. CBF has been using the concrete balls for years as an artificial home for oysters. Larvae attach themselves to the concrete much like they would to traditional reefs made of old shell. While mortality is an expected feature of all oyster reefs, other man-made reefs in the Severn River have survived and thrived.

The main difference in this reef project, however, is that sophisticated underwater equipment provided by UMCES will monitor the impact of the 240 balls on currents. CBF also will monitor for dissolved oxygen and other conditions at the reef during the summer when hypoxia, or low oxygen, is typically at its worst. Those results will be compared to monitoring data taken prior to reef construction.

The Chesapeake Oyster Alliance is a broad partnership designed to spark governmental action, public attention, and funding to accelerate ongoing oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay. The ambitious goal of this collaborative effort is to add 10 billion new oysters by 2025 in Virginia and Maryland waters.

The Winchester Lump project not only will add potentially 400,000 oysters to the Alliance goal, but could create significant motivation to accelerate oyster restoration in the Chesapeake given the multiple benefits of oyster reefs.

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