River Project Offers New Hope For Oysters, Researchers Say

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

Scientists say they've created something in a Virginia river that hasn't been seen since the late 1800s: a vast, thriving reef of American oysters, the shellfish that helped create the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem and then nearly vanished from it.

The reef sits on the bottom of the Great Wicomico River, a bay tributary about 80 miles southeast of Washington. The scientists say they found a better way to plant oysters, creating an 87-acre colony of bivalves that teems with other marine life.

That's a long way from bringing oysters back in all of the Chesapeake. Virginia and Maryland officials said this week that they doubted this success could be replicated widely.

But the oyster researchers said their work, published online Thursday in the journal Science, provides new hope for one of the bay's most beleaguered species. The oyster, depleted by overfishing, pollution and disease, has fallen to less than 1 percent of its historical population.

When an underwater camera hovered over the new reef, "we knew we were looking at something that no one had ever seen before" -- or at least, no one living -- said David Schulte, a researcher with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who worked on the project.

They saw small fish, blue crabs and oysters blowing out underwater "smoke rings," showing that they were filtering out algae and dirt. "That just had been something that hadn't been in the bay for more than a century," Schulte said.

For centuries, the bay and the bivalve were as tightly linked as a forest and its trees. Oysters filtered the water as they fed, and they clustered in reefs that were as busy with life as Caribbean corals.

But, after Europeans arrived, these reefs were destroyed by centuries of watermen towing rakelike metal "dredges" and silted over by dirt flowing from the mid-Atlantic's farms and growing cities. The final blow came in the mid-20th century: A pair of new diseases killed oysters by the millions.

Now, in many places, the bay bottom is a flat expanse of green mud.

"Just picture, you know, a clear-cut forest," said Kennedy Paynter, a biology professor at the University of Maryland who did not work on the Great Wicomico project. "I mean, we're down to one or two oysters per square meter [of bay floor], when we suspect it was 200 or 300 at least back in the day."

For years, efforts to save the oyster, and the Chesapeake watermen who caught them, came to little. Federal and state governments spent $58 million from 1994 to last year and wound up with fewer of both. They considered bringing in a new oyster species from Asia but shelved that idea this year.

In the Great Wicomico River, the researchers said they used a new strategy. They closed the area to harvesting, then in 2004 piled old oyster shells one to two feet high -- higher than previous researchers had, they said. They waited for baby oysters to latch on. The idea was to give the oysters a perch out of the dirt-choked water on the bottom.

On the bottom, Schulte said, the oysters would be like "a sick smoker in a smoke-filled bar." They would expend so much energy spitting out dirt that they would be too weak to fight off disease. But, in the higher spot, Schulte said, the oysters were "marathon runners taking a nice jog in the mountain air, and it does make them significantly healthier."

When the researchers visited the spot in 2007, they said they found up to 1,000 oysters per square meter and an entire ecosystem clustered around them. There were about 185 million oysters in total, a fifty-sixfold increase from before the experiment began. They said that the oysters on the reef seemed more resistant to disease and that the reef looked healthy this year.

"It was a never-ending, massive, thriving reef," said Rom Lipcius, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who worked on the project. "We were literally giddy."

These scientists said their success might be duplicated elsewhere if the new reefs were built similarly tall and located where water currents would bring in food.

But, in the two bay states, government scientists were not as enthusiastic. In Maryland, Department of Natural Resources official Michael Naylor said the cost of the Great Wicomico project -- at $3 million, it was more than $34,000 an acre -- would make it expensive to use on a wide scale.

And in Virginia, state official Jim Wesson said he believed that disease is likely to ravage the Great Wicomico. He said the only real solution would be for the bay's oysters to develop a natural immunity.

"I mean, that's evolution," said Wesson, of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "It's not short-term."

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