(Delmarvanow.com) -- There will be a new spot to harvest an Eastern Shore delicacy in the future.
The Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission are collaborating to build 3 acres of oyster reef offshore from the aptly named village of Oyster.
One acre of the new, privately funded reefs will eventually open to recreational harvest, with an additional 2 acres of no-harvest habitat going inside the Hillcrest Shellfish Sanctuary in Mockhorn Bay.
“The seaside oysters are looking really good. All we’re lacking are hard substrates in the right spots,” said Bo Lusk, coastal scientist at TNC’s Virginia Coast Reserve.
Historically, the Eastern Shore’s seaside oysters provided a thriving commercial fishery.
Harvests peaked at around half a million bushels per year in the 1950s, but by the mid-1990s, the oyster yields bottomed out due to disease, overharvesting, pollution and loss of habitat, Lusk said.
“When we were losing our oysters, we were losing a lot of substrate, too,” said Lusk, referring to the hard surfaces baby oysters need to land on and grow.
“Our whole role, really, is to continue to add to that substrate to replace what we lost when we didn’t have oysters,” he said.
To do that, workers from Northampton company SeaDuce are dredging fossil shell from deeper waters, where oysters can no longer grow. The crew pile the shell onto their barge and move it to mudflats, where they use a powerful water cannon to blast the shells into place.
When oysters spawn in the late spring and summer, it will provide spots for larvae to land and grow, contributing to a living reef.
“Ideally, you want the shell to go in the water before the oysters start spawning in the summer,” Lusk said, “but we did start early enough to get some strike” this fall.
The 2 acres of oyster reef in the Hillcrest Shellfish Sanctuary will be a no-harvest area, creating habitat for game fish, crabs and other marine life.
“The best thing about a sanctuary reef is the structure it provides,” Lusk said. “Because it’s not getting harvested, it grows up and has all these nooks and crannies. It’s habitat for all sorts of other things to live in.”
The oysters also filter water and provide a natural buffer to coastal erosion — all while adding more oysters to the wild population.
The acre of new reef at Cedar Creek will eventually open to the public for harvest, after the oysters reach a harvestable size.
Local watermen provided input on the location of the reef, based on characteristics that help oysters to grow quickly and make them easy to harvest, Lusk said.
“This is a great example of the collaborative partnerships needed to ensure a robust and sustainable oyster population today and well into the future,” said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Joseph Ward in a press release. “These reefs will provide significant ecological benefits and economic opportunities for our hardworking watermen.”
Construction on the reefs is expected to wrap up this month, with about 60,000 bushels of new shell providing habitat for oysters in the creekside banks and Hillcrest Sanctuary, Lusk said.