Regional partnerships key to oyster habitat restoration
The population’s revitalization could help meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.
For Leslie Townsell, protecting oyster reefs is a matter of protecting coastal communities.
“They’re really our first line of defense with climate change, and all these hurricanes and stormfronts coming,” she said.
Healthy oyster populations — stacked up into reefs — can help protect against major coastal floods by minimizing storm surges and reducing everyday erosion of buffer wetland habitats.
That’s one of the reasons Townsell is conducting graduate research on oyster populations at the University of Georgia. It’s also one of the reasons that Black in Marine Science — the nonprofit where she serves as community director — joined the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance earlier this month.
Created in 2018 by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the alliance is intended to raise awareness and funding for Bay restoration efforts, as well as to create dialogue among a wide variety of marine experts. It has members in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.
“There’s like 101 little programs that we’re running all the time,” said Tanner Council, senior manager of the alliance.
The COA has a goal of adding 10 billion oysters to the Bay by 2025, which Council said will help meet multistate and federal Chesapeake Bay Program goals, like restoring oyster habitats in 10 Bay tributaries in Maryland and Virginia.
Council said it’s the little programs and the work of alliance members that make those goals attainable. The COA's Oyster Innovation Grant Program offers funding for some alliance members in service of their mission. COA also holds the annual Chesapeake Oyster Science Symposium, in addition to other events, to discuss efforts and present research.
"On the way to 10 billion oysters, it's not just these large-scale tributaries that matter,” Council said. "It's all the work that's coming from all these different individuals and different groups of people who believe in this, and who are spending their time and energy to help us meet those goals.”
The alliance also advocates for state and federal regulations it said would stabilize oyster populations from year to year, including management of commercial fishing activities in the Bay.
'On the way to 10 billion oysters, it's not just these large-scale tributaries that matter. It's all the work that's coming from all these different individuals and different groups of people who believe in this ... .'
The Bay program said the Lafayette, Piankatank and Great Wicomico rivers in Virginia have all been successfully restored, with work on the lower York and Lynnhaven rivers on track to be completed by or shortly after the 2025 goal. Habitat restoration in Maryland’s Manokin River, called the world’s largest oyster restoration project, was mostly unfinished as of fall 2022. But the project obtained some funding in early 2023 and some work is now underway.
Virginia is home to dozens of alliance members, including the Nansemond Indian Nation, Hampton University, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, Friends of the Rappahannock and a wide range of oyster producers, restaurants and more.
Now, Black in Marine Science is looking to contribute, too, becoming the alliance’s 100th member this month. Council said the 101st has also joined.
Townsell said BIMS began as a way for Black marine scientists to have community, share ideas and unwind virtually at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit produces educational videos, hosts a yearly virtual “BIMS Week” retreat and more.
“We are all scattered about all over the world. And a lot of times, there might be only one of us in our program or one or two of us in our program,” Townsell said.
BIMS is worldwide, with over 400 members in 31 countries. And after years of building a virtual community, Townsell said the nonprofit is looking at a site in Hampton to be its research home base. The first in-person BIMS Week is set to be held in the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel this fall. The oyster alliance is sponsoring a beach cleanup as part of the event.
“This year's retreat really is all about self-care and professional development, and giving back to our community,” Townsell said.
The planned Hampton research space can have an impact that reaches far beyond the Chesapeake Bay watershed — like in Georgia, where Townsell’s research shows how oyster populations are affected by rising water temperatures.
“We’re hoping that the research that we have done in the past as individuals and the research that we're coming together to do as a group will help restoration efforts,” Townsell said. “Not only in [the] Chesapeake Bay, but these oyster reefs are a huge part of a lot of different communities around the U.S.”
Member groups don’t have to pay dues to the alliance, they just have to contribute to oyster population goals — whether that’s maintaining oyster farms, advocating for protective policies or some other form of work to protect the bivalves.
Groups or individuals that don’t solely focus on oysters but want to be involved can also apply for “reef builder” or supporter status within the group.
Although many of the indicators for oyster population health are improving and the regional goal to restore 10 tributaries is largely on track, oysters are just one part of a complicated ecosystem. Bay program member states are not currently on track to meet pollution reduction goals.