Oyster Reefs Breathe New Life into Virginia’s Elizabeth River

Posted Wed, 08/12/2020 - 13:08
By Megan Ewald and Simeon Hahn, Office of Response and Restoration Assessment and Restoration Division

If you ever wondered how oyster reefs are built, it involves a team of dedicated experts and a water cannon. Over the last month, barges have blasted 100,000 bushels of small fossilized oyster shells, called oyster hash, into the Eastern Branch of Virginia’s Elizabeth River. Oyster hash is normally shipped abroad for use as chicken feed, but now it’s laying the foundation for a restoration project that will help the river recover from pollution.

The Elizabeth River is a working waterway that flows into the Chesapeake Bay near Portsmouth, Virginia. It is home to the Atlantic Wood Industries Superfund Site, where a wood-treating facility released hazardous waste from 1926-1992. The U.S. Navy also contributed to the pollution when it leased part of the property during World War II. In 2019, a $1.5 million settlement was reached to fund restoration. This work is now underway with the help of a local partner, Elizabeth River Project, which has been restoring oysters in the area for over four years.

An infographic describing the value of oyster habitat.

Oysters are an important part of the Chesapeake Bay. They filter and remove excess nutrients like nitrogen from the water. An adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water every day! As these invertebrates grow into reefs they also provide habitat for fish, crabs, and other species. Unfortunately, as a result of diseases overfishing, degraded water quality, and other problems, only about 1-2% of the Chesapeake’s historic oyster population remains today.

That is why the agencies who worked together to reach the $1.5 million settlement chose oyster reefs to help restore the Elizabeth River. It’s a living restoration project. As oysters grow, larvae settle on top of adults, forming layers of oysters that spread upward and outward. That means the ecosystem services they provide grow too. The oyster reefs being built now will continue to grow and benefit the Elizabeth River for years to come.

Oyster reefs near a shore.
Oyster reefs near to shore. Image courtesy of Elizabeth River Project.

The oyster restoration work on the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River is a result of a partnership between Elizabeth River Project and Virginia Marine Resource Commission. Elizabeth River Project is a local grassroots organization that has been working for over 28 years to restore this great urban river, and has collaborated with NOAA over the years in a range of efforts including sediment contamination mapping, site remediation and habitat restoration, watershed planning efforts, and sharing environmental justice, Brownfield, and urban restoration objectives.

“The partnership we have had with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has been extraordinary,” said Joe Rieger, deputy director of restoration for the Elizabeth River Project. “We are excited to watch the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth improve and help pave the way for an overall healthier Chesapeake Bay. These new oyster reefs will help to improve water quality while also providing critical habitat to both fish and wading birds.”

Children looking out across a body of water.
Students learn and engage with the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River from the "Learning Barge." Image courtesy of the Elizabeth River Project.

Healthier rivers don’t just benefit the environment, they also benefit people and the economy. The Elizabeth River Project includes environmental justice efforts that empower the local community to get out and enjoy this urban waterway through outdoor education and volunteerism. When people have access to nature and outdoor recreation it opens up a world of opportunities to learn and care about their local waterways and the environment as a whole.

Blasting oyster hash into the river will lay a foundation for a new generation of oysters to settle down, allowing oyster reefs to return to their historic habitat. When all is said and done, a total of 20 acres of oyster reefs will be restored and the Elizabeth River will make great strides toward the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement’s goals of restoring 10 tributaries by 2025.

This project is a great example of how NOAA can partner with local states and organizations to develop innovative and effective restoration projects. These oyster reefs are a cost-effective investment in the future of the Elizabeth River. They will continue to grow, benefiting communities, economies, and ecosystems for years to come.

Special thanks to our Atlantic Wood Superfund Site co-trustees U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and Commonwealth of Virginia for making this work possible.