Oyster renaissance lifts Chesapeake Bay, but troubles linger

By Rob Hotakainen | 05/21/2024 01:13 PM EDT

A campaign to add 10 billion oysters to the bay by 2025 — naturally purifying the water — is on pace even as Virginia and Maryland contend with agricultural runoff and other pollutants.

Joey Carmack retrieving one of his oyster cages from the bottom of Broad Bay in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Joey Carmack retrieving one of his oyster cages from the bottom of Broad Bay in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Rob Hotakainen/POLITICO's E&E News

VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia — After hoisting one of his 650 oyster cages from the bottom of Broad Bay, Joey Carmack grabbed a hose to remove a slimy pile of bright green seaweed and muck from his equipment, wishing there were more hours in the day to keep it clean.

“If we could get out here and spray every cage every single day, I would, but it’s just not feasible,” said Carmack, the operations director for First Landing Seafood, a small family-owned business that plans to grow 3 million oysters this year in a tributary of the Lynnhaven River at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

As the peak summer season approaches, these are busy days for Carmack, whose aquaculture business is just a small part of a much bigger plan to introduce 10 billion new oysters in the Chesapeake by 2025 as a kind of natural purification system.


With each adult oyster capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water in a single day, Carmack said he’s happy that his operation can help the environment while also allowing him to make a living on the water.

Fisheries experts say the ambitious campaign could help clean up the nation’s largest estuary, which has been hit hard for decades by agricultural runoff, stormwater and other pollutants.

Oysters, too, have been in bad shape. One of the bay’s prized fisheries, oysters have been in decline for decades, not only because of the pollution but also from disease and — in particular — overfishing.

By 2011, the oyster population in the upper Chesapeake Bay was estimated to be 0.3 percent of its historic levels from the early 1800s, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

But after the oyster campaign officially hit the 6 billion mark in March, officials believe their bigger goal is now within reach by next year.

Standing aboard Carmack’s oyster rig on a recent sunny day, Tanner Council, senior manager of the nonprofit Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, recalled how the Chesapeake’s oyster population “was a species on the brink of collapse in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

Now, he said, oysters are “hitting the zeitgeist.”

“The largest oyster restoration project on the planet is happening here in the Chesapeake Bay,” Council said.

The economic stakes for Maryland and Virginia are huge. While oysters have long been touted for their ability to purify the bay’s waters by helping remove excess nutrients, their abundance could also aid more than 300 other species of fish and invertebrates, including blue crabs, rockfish and menhaden. Altogether, seafood from the Chesapeake remains big business, generating more than $1 billion in sales. 

Joey Carmack guides one of his cages before landing it on his rig.
Carmack guides one of his cages before landing it on his rig. | Rob Hotakainen/POLITICO’s E&E News

Building back oysters, both as an industry and a crucial component of the Chesapeake ecosystem, includes a variety of tactics. Officials are encouraging more oyster farming, which still lags behind the harvesting of wild oysters in the bay. And there have also been ongoing efforts to restore tributaries and wall them off from watermen who work the bay for wild oysters, dredging for their catch. That has been as source of tension, as watermen say the restrictions cut into their bottom line.

Signs of the oyster revival are now hard to miss on the sprawling Chesapeake Bay, which has a shoreline longer than the entire West Coast, stretching more than 11,600 miles through Maryland and Virginia.

Oysters are seemingly everywhere, with new oyster reefs, oyster living shorelines, oyster gardens, even “oyster castles” built from concrete blocks that lock together like Legos.

The push began in earnest after Virginia and Maryland officials chose 10 tributaries for large-scale restoration projects — five in each state — to comply with the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, a pact that helped set the stage for the oyster boom.

So far, officials said, more than $87 million has been spent to restore the reefs in the two states. In an update on April 23, NOAA, one of the federal agencies that’s working with the states, said that eight of the 10 original tributary projects have now been completed, with York River in Virginia becoming the latest to join the list.

Oyster reefs have now been fully constructed and seeded at all of the sites, except for the Manokin River in Maryland and Virginia’s Lynnhaven River.

In an earlier report, NOAA said the restored acreage in the Chesapeake Bay now surpasses 2 square miles, providing “more than 1,055 football fields of healthy reef habitat.” And with all of the work expected to be done by next year, NOAA said officials “are already thinking about what comes next.”

If the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gets its way, the next step will be much larger: expanding the restoration to include another 20 tributaries by 2035, a plan that collectively would encompass 4,000 acres or more of restored oyster reef.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), one of the top proponents of the restoration projects, gave the idea a thumbs-up when he attended a March fundraiser in Washington hosted by the foundation.

“I’m all for the expansion of tributaries,” Cardin said in an interview, calling oysters “critically important to the environment of the bay.”

“The challenge is we’re well below the historic numbers, but we’re much better today than we were just a few years ago,” he added. “So we are making progress. The programs are working, we’ve just got to do more.”

‘Oysters are not the panacea’

Jackie Shannon, the Virginia oyster restoration manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, steered her boat to get a closer look at oyster castles on the Lafayette River.
Jackie Shannon, the Virginia oyster restoration manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, steers her boat to get a closer look at oyster castles on the Lafayette River. | Rob Hotakainen/POLITICO’s E&E News

Despite their promise, oysters won’t be the final cure-all for the Chesapeake, which still faces plenty of lingering troubles.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “State of the Bay” report card released in January 2023 gave the bay an overall grade of “D+,” unchanged from 2020. Of the 13 indicators assessed, only three improved, while three declined. Oysters did see a gain, but that was offset by a drop for blue crabs, while indicators on pollution and habitat showed little change.

Allison Colden, the Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it’s clear that “oysters are not the panacea” to clean up the bay and that other changes will also be needed.

“You can’t do whatever you want on the land in terms of developing and putting in impervious surfaces and allow toxics and nutrients to enter the Chesapeake Bay and expect oysters to take care of it for us,” she said. “So as much as oysters are helping clean up the bay and improving water quality, we also have to improve water quality for the sake of the oysters, as well.”

But Colden said there’s also no doubt that the restoration efforts have worked and moved forward on schedule, even though they’ve involved a myriad of private organizations and individuals, state and local agencies, and federal partners, including NOAA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“When this was first rolled out — the oyster restoration goal — everybody thought it was absolutely impossible and that there was no way we could ever achieve that, at the scale we have now, and in the 10-year time frame that we have,” she said.

Officials have been buoyed by the early results, pointing to a 350-acre restoration of Harris Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as proof that their efforts have paid off.

The foundation’s report estimated that oysters are removing 20,000 pounds of nitrogen from the creek each year, increasing the abundance of sea squirts, worms, shrimp and small fish that serve as food for larger fish.

Overall, the report said, restored reefs are removing seven times as much nitrogen when compared to unrestored areas.

Not everyone’s cheering about the changes.

While the efforts have won broad-based support from conservationists, they’ve also drawn opposition from many watermen who say that too much water has been placed off-limits from harvesting wild oysters.

Plans to restore the Manokin River site, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, have been particularly controversial, prompting a lawsuit by Somerset County commissioners after local watermen complained that the restoration would limit too much access.

After first winning a restraining order in 2021 that temporarily stalled the work, opponents eventually lost their court fight, allowing the plan to proceed.

Eugene Evans, a former waterman and boatbuilder from Crisfield, who urged the county board to file the suit, said watermen will be ready to try to block the foundation’s plan to add another 20 tributaries for oyster restoration.

“I’m sure we will fight it,” he said.

Evans said he also worries that the foundation’s proposal to expand the Maryland aquaculture industry to 50,000 leased acres by 2035 would hurt the state’s watermen. But he said it’s an uphill battle trying to fight powerful interests, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, its donors, and a mix of state and federal agencies.

“There’s not really anything the public can do about it because they’ve got government money,” he said. “We certainly don’t have the money.”

Robert Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said the industry has experienced a sharp reduction in the number of watermen working across the state.

“We don’t have that many oystermen anymore,” he said. “When I was a kid back in the ‘60s, it was somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 oystermen in St. Mary’s County — just St. Mary’s County. And now it’s somewhere around 1,500 or less — probably 1,200 or 1,300 — in the whole state.”

Brown said he also opposes the plan to add 20 more tributaries for reef restoration.

“It’ll stop us from expanding,” he said. “It’s just wrong, we shouldn’t be locked in a box like that.”

Colden is familiar with the complaints, recalling how watermen even once used a blockade to temporarily stop restoration work at the Tred Avon River in Maryland.

“It has not been without its bumpy roads, I will say that,” she said.

Eugene Evans, a former waterman and boatbuilder from Crisfield, Maryland.
Eugene Evans, a former waterman and boatbuilder from Crisfield, Maryland, urged Somerset County commissioners to file a lawsuit challenging restoration plans on the Manokin River. After first winning a restraining order in 2021 that temporarily stalled the work, opponents eventually lost their court fight, allowing the plan to proceed. | Rob Hotakainen/POLITICO’s E&E News

But Colden said watermen have benefited from the restoration efforts, too, adding that they still retain access to 76 percent of all the bay’s oyster habitat and have profited from better harvests.

“Even without having access to the 24 percent of closed areas, they have had the largest harvests over the past few years that they’ve had since the 1980s,” she said. “So as much as they may not want to admit that they’re benefiting from these areas, we’re pretty sure that they are.”

The wild oyster season for Maryland and Virginia typically runs from October to March, but aquaculture harvesting can continue year round.

In the 2022-23 season, Maryland watermen harvested 620,000 bushels of wild oysters from public fishing areas in the bay, the biggest harvest since the 1986-87 season, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources

That’s almost seven times as much as the record roughly 94,000 bushels produced by oyster farmers in 2022, an increase of 4.5 percent from the previous year, according to the University of Maryland Extension.

Maryland has trailed far behind Virginia in oyster aquaculture.

When Virginia had its biggest overall oyster harvest in 35 years in 2022-23, total production hit 700,000 bushels, with more than half — or 400,000 bushels — coming from the aquaculture industry, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission said.

Maryland officials are also forecasting a bright future for wild oysters.

In January, the state’s Department of Natural Resources reported that its 2023 fall survey of oysters in the bay recorded “a remarkable year for juvenile oysters” in the state.

‘Oysters are doing all the work’

Ted McFadden’s backyard in Norfolk, Virginia, is lined with oysters.
Ted McFadden’s backyard in Norfolk, Virginia, is lined with enough oysters to fill a large dumpster truck. It’s one of the many “living shorelines” that now populate the Chesapeake and its tributaries. | Rob Hotakainen/POLITICO’s E&E News

Two years ago, Ted McFadden, a private property owner in Norfolk, Virginia, decided to line the 150-foot shoreline of his backyard with enough oysters to fill a large dumpster truck.

McFadden’s project cost nearly $9,400, but he only paid for half, aided by a cost-sharing program run by the Elizabeth River Project, a nonprofit organization based in Norfolk. He said it’s a good feeling knowing that the project is assisting in the cleanup of the Lafayette River.

“We restored the shoreline, it’s not going anywhere — and the oysters are doing all the work,” he said.

The project is an example of the many “living shorelines” that now populate the Chesapeake and its tributaries. For McFadden and others, that means using oysters for their ecological purposes with no intent to sell them.

Officials say the oysters not only clean the water but also fight erosion and that the living shorelines will become increasingly more important in confronting climate change. Studies have found that sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay region is growing at one of the fastest rates in the U.S. and will threaten more than 110,500 homes in Maryland and Virginia by the year 2100.

“Oysters can grow at a rate that is equal and above the rate of sea-level rise,” said Chris Moore, the Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “So we can use oyster reefs in living shorelines and include oysters as green infrastructure in nature-based designs to protect them from sea-level rise.”

The nature-based designs include thousands of “oyster castles” that now line part of the Lafayette River. Baby oysters attach themselves to the concrete blocks, increasing the natural vegetative buffer while also protecting the shoreline.

Mary Bennett, an environmental scientist with the Elizabeth River Project, said the organization has done at least 20 of the living shorelines that included oyster castles on the Lafayette River alone.

Surveying some of the castles recently as she steered a boat to get close to them, Jackie Shannon, the Virginia oyster restoration manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called them “a great addition for habitat diversity.”

She said volunteers helped erect the structures, while others have joined the efforts by getting their own cages to grow oysters.

“We have about 700 individual oyster gardeners growing throughout the state,” Shannon said. “It’s a way that we can get hundreds of thousands of more oysters into tributaries that we’re not working on — and it’s a way to get people excited, they really become advocates.”

Scott Budden, an oyster grower from Chestertown, Maryland, shucked some of his oysters at a March fundraiser in Washington hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Scott Budden (right), an oyster grower from Chestertown, Maryland, shucked some of his oysters at a March fundraiser in Washington hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. | Rob Hotakainen/POLITICO’s E&E News

More than 600 oyster advocates — including top philanthropists, politicians and community leaders — attended the “DC on the Half Shell” fundraiser March 18. As they sampled local oysters and nibbled on gourmet cuisine, they helped the Chesapeake Bay Foundation raise money, with the event taking in more than $4 million since it was first held in 2016.

Afterward, the foundation said the money would help accomplish “amazing feats, like adding millions of baby oysters to our waterways.”

Scott Budden, an oyster grower from Chestertown, Maryland, who showed up at the fundraiser to shuck some of his fresh oysters for the crowd, said he has been watching the restoration efforts closely. While his company aims to sell roughly a million oysters each year, he said the market has had its share of ups and downs.

“We made it through Covid, when our restaurant sales went to zero within two weeks. … So there’s obviously been a challenge to get over that,” he said. “It’s been relatively strong but in the last six months or so we’ve seen a little bit of a contraction, a little bit of a slowdown, and we’re not 100 percent sure where that’s coming from. … I think maybe there’s just less consumption.”

Meanwhile, Carmack, whose company has a 70-acre aquaculture lease in Broad Bay, said he’s expecting to add a few employees for the summer.

Although he runs a different business than traditional oystermen, Carmack said he, too, considers himself a waterman. And he understands the pushback to oyster aquaculture by others who want to only harvest those produced in the wild.

But as he ran his freshly sprayed oysters through a tumbler to sort them by size, Carmack defended his business, saying the only negative environmental effect comes from the use of fossil fuels to run his generators.

“For every oyster we grow and sell, there’s a wild one that doesn’t have to get harvested,” he said. “If I can keep 3 million alive per year, I’m going to be happy. It’s a drop in the bucket realistically, but every little bit helps.”

Correction: The story was updated after publication to correct the name of the “DC on the Half Shell” fundraiser and the amount of money raised.