The 300-pound concrete oyster reef balls dotted with holes each made a slight splash as they were carefully lowered by crane into the Chesapeake Bay Thursday.
The reef balls resemble the rocks with holes that some pet fish owners add to the bottom of their tanks. In both cases they serve a similar purpose—providing habitat for marine life—places for fish, crabs and other species to hide.
At the July 29 deployment off the coast of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) staff and project partners added 78 reef balls to the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative site located in the Herring Bay oyster sanctuary. Staff had previously set each reef ball, built by volunteers across Maryland, with oyster spat—or juvenile oysters—which over time will grow using the reef balls’ concrete surface as a base. The oyster reef balls were placed about two miles offshore in a sanctuary protected from oyster harvesting.
“Reef balls provide hard substrate for the settlement and growth of native oysters, which is largely lacking due to the loss of oyster reefs,” said CBF Maryland senior fisheries scientist Allison Colden. “They emulate the reef structure of an undisturbed oyster reef that builds higher in the water column over time through generations of oyster spawning and growth. The reef balls also create instant habitat for fish, crabs, and other Bay organisms to use.”
CBF and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland (CCA), both members of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, partnered with the Department of Natural Resources’ Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative, the Chesapeake Beach Oyster Cultivation Society, and the Town of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland to make the project a reality.
The long-term hope is that the new oyster reef will improve water quality and increase recreational fishing opportunities. Healthy, adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Oyster reefs have long been a haven for species such as spot, silver perch, shrimp, and blue crabs that attract popular fish including striped bass, croaker, speckled trout, and more.
Oyster reef habitat in the Chesapeake Bay has struggled to recover after decades of overfishing, pollution, and disease decimated oyster populations and the habitat oysters naturally create. A 2011 study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series estimated oyster habitat in the Bay declined nearly 70 percent from 1980 to 2009.
“Throughout Maryland we’re supporting efforts to increase recreational fishing opportunities and that means adding more fish habitat,” said David Sikorski, Executive Director of CCA Maryland, which advocates for healthy coastal fisheries. “Maryland anglers know the value of oyster reefs, so we're happy to support this project and others that help oysters rebuild reefs after decades of habitat decline.”
The oysters added as part of this project will count toward the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance’s efforts to add 10 billion oysters to the Bay by 2025. The alliance is a coalition of nonprofits, oyster growers, academic institutions, community organizations, and others.
“Whether it’s large-scale tributary restoration or targeted projects like this one, we’ll continue to support work to bring back oysters and reef habitat to improve the Bay’s ecosystem,” said Tanner Council, manager of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance.
This project is one of several new smaller scale oyster restoration projects that CBF is working on with partners to replenish oysters in state-designated sanctuaries. Similar restoration projects are being developed for Bay tributary rivers in the Annapolis area and elsewhere.