Oyster reef excitement in Virginia; Habitat: The state has begun a campaign to take restoration of the bivalves to what one official calls 'the next level' by re-creating the way they grew in the bay for thousands of years.


ON THE Elizabeth River near Norfolk, the folly and the wisdom in Virginia's approach to the bay and its resources are on display.

Upstream, as last week's column recounted, Gov. James S. Gilmore III stands by as people who gave his campaign big bucks develop wetlands in the river's headwaters.

Meanwhile, here in the river, something quite exciting and profound is under development.

To a shoreline observer, it would appear that fisheries biologist Rob Brumbaugh and I are walking on water, chatting in the middle of the Elizabeth River's western branch.

What we're standing on, just being covered by tide flooding up the Chesapeake, is a great arc of oyster shells, built up 10 feet from the bottom, about 100 yards long by 50 feet wide.

It is more than a shell pile, Brumbaugh says, picking up year-old oysters that are thriving, protected from predators in the countless crevices of what he calls "the reef."

It is on its way to becoming a true reef, one of 20 Virginia has built since 1993, and the start of a new state campaign to take oyster restoration "to the next level," Brumbaugh says.

Reefs are how oysters in the Chesapeake Bay grew for thousands of years, before dredging live oysters and mining shell devastated them during the past two centuries.

This historic glory of bivalves usually is memorialized in accounts of oysters "more than a foot in length," of harvests topping 15 million bushels a year (vs. 100,000 bushels a year recently), and of oysters "so thick ships ran aground."

But oysters were much more -- what ecologists call a "keystone" species, dominant enough to shape the whole system.

Encrusted with marine life, they provided habitat for fish and countless other organisms, like old-growth forests on the land.

They filtered water equivalent to the whole bay every several days, and the nutrient-rich feces they deposited injected food energy throughout a diverse web of other benthic (bottom-dwelling) life.

Indeed, the bay was once a bottom culture, literally rooted in vast meadows of submerged grass and upthrusting reefs of shellfish.

Today's bay is turned upside down, just as the Midwest's deep-rooted virgin prairie was overturned for quick-sprouting corn.

The bay now features free-floating algae and species like jellyfish and menhaden; it also features more bottom where sediment covers former oyster bars, and the water is deprived of oxygen.

William J. Hargis and other Virginia scientists who have been researching the historic importance of oyster reefs believe they extended, fairly densely, north as far as the Patapsco River on the Western Shore, and all the way up the Eastern Shore to Kent Island.

"In truth, the oyster reefs of the Chesapeake were the dominant community and likely the most productive, as important as coral reefs are in [tropical waters]," Hargis writes.

By digitizing measurements from 1870s navigation charts, Virginia scientists have reconstructed striking 3-D images of reefs that stretched for miles in the James River alone (see www.vims.edu/(tilde)hwoods).

For Brumbaugh, who works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the reefs in the Elizabeth River, in the midst of an urban-industrial complex, also are a first-rate classroom.

The foundation, he estimates, has invested some $250,000 in time and money in reef projects around the bay.

Thousands of Virginia school kids have come to the fledgling reefs and begun to raise oysters -- some 250,000 this year -- with help from the foundation.

The Norfolk Rotary Club is so enthusiastic it has raised $28,000 for reef work and is holding another fund-raiser soon, Brumbaugh says.

"This is hands-on restoration, very inspiring to people," he says. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg. It's clear now that reefs are the right thing to do."

A turning point came in 1997, Brumbaugh says, when an experimental reef, stocked with mature oysters, produced dramatically higher spawning success, both on the reef and throughout Virginia's Great Wicomico River, where it was located.

Since then, similar results have been documented in other places.

"Think of the reef as a bank account, spreading interest up and down the river," Brumbaugh says.

Last month, the state announced its new Virginia Oyster Heritage Program, which will spend some $3 million to create even larger reefs in the Rappahannock River. Watermen can harvest oysters near the reefs, but the reefs will remain sanctuaries.

This last part, Hargis says, is absolutely critical. There have been many quasi-reef-building efforts around the bay, moving shell and small oysters to enhance the bottom.

But like almost all management of the oyster up to now, it was done primarily for increasing harvests.

The current reef building, managing for the oysters' ecological (and educational) values, is profoundly new. Everybody talks about "ecosystem management," but almost no one truly does it.

It doesn't mean cutting out the watermen (who have opposed reefs as sanctuaries in Maryland and Virginia). But it does mean managing first for the oyster and the bay, and then for the harvesters, instead of vice versa.

Ecosystem management is a lesson Virginia is taking to heart in the water.

Sadly, by allowing wetlands to be destroyed wholesale on the lands that drain into those waters, the state is acting as if upstream and downstream weren't connected.

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