Getting to the bottom of reefs Re-creating a classic: For restoring a Piankatank River reef, James Wesson of Virginia won the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Conservationist of the Year award.

On the Bay

February 16, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

AMERICANS, ONE frequently hears, yearn for a renewed sense of community, the loss of which has had implications well beyond nostalgic hearkenings to a simpler, more civil time.

For example, a study of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed nearly 600 people found more severe hot spells at least twice in the early 20th century, but far fewer deaths.

But in those days, fewer elderly people -- the prime victims of heatstroke -- lived outside extended families, or were so averse to cooling off on front steps because of crime fears, the researchers found.

Around the Chesapeake, we shattered an important community structure so long ago that no one living can fully appreciate what it must have been like, and most don't even know it existed.

These were the great "rocks," or reefs, of oysters built, generation upon generation, to the point they posed hazards to Colonial navigation and broke the surface of the water at low tides. In the bay's greatest oyster areas, like Virginia's James River, such reefs stretched along the channel edges for more than 15 miles.

The breakup and leveling of the reefs began in the first few decades of the 19th century as New England dredge vessels, having exhausted the oyster troves of their own region, invaded the Chesapeake.

By the turn of the century, when more than a thousand dredge boats worked the bay, it is probable that virgin reefs beneath the water were as scarce as old-growth forest is in Virginia and Maryland today. What the pre-Colonial landscape or bay bottom really was like, we will not know in our lifetimes.

But near his home on the Piankatank River, a Virginian, James Wesson, has been re-creating a classic reef, a template for restoring at least a bit of what once was among the greatest communities of shellfish on Earth. For his efforts, he recently received the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Conservationist of the Year award. Given since 1980, the award has gone to scientists and to watermen, but never to both at once.

Dr. Wesson, who crabbed for 10 years and was president of the state's Working Watermens Association, also holds a doctorate in wildlife management from the University of Wisconsin and has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals.

None of these credentials has protected him from threats of bodily harm and burning his home, made by watermen angry at his sometimes outspoken attempts to protect oysters in his current role -- head of oyster repletion for the Virginia Marine Resource Commission.

Dr. Wesson is a nonconfrontational type, philosophical about some of the setbacks he's had. He once told me, "The watermen believe what they say, believe it in their hearts, and the commissioners [for whom he works] often consider them experts; but they are experts in harvesting, not managing."

Currently, though several hundred Virginia watermen hold oyster licenses, only parts of the James River and a tiny remnant bar in the Rappahannock remain viable oystering areas, "And you're lucky if you see 10 boats out there on a good day," he says.

Harvests of market oysters -- which, like Maryland's, used to be in the millions of bushels -- are now counted in the tens of thousands, and barely that.

The watermens' take from public oyster grounds in all of Virginia's part of the bay this season may not hit 10,000 bushels (an additional 20,000 to 30,000 bushels may come from private oyster beds, which have been encouraged more in Virginia than in Maryland).

About his reef-building experiments, Dr. Wesson is as excited as the scientist in him will allow: "You can't call it a success, because we only built the first one in 1993."

The 1,000-by-100-foot structure rises above the Piankatank at low tide, and since then he has built three more reefs in that river and another in the James.

"But already we're seeing a good spat set [attachment of young oysters] in an area that has had virtually none for a while," he says, "and it seems to be centered on the part of the river with the reef."

The idea, he says, was based on little more than "to try and mimic how [oysters] looked in the bay when the bay was at its best."

Reefs, he says, are the way oysters evolved.

Such a close concentration of the shellfish probably makes spawning and attachment of spat more efficient; and the millions of nooks and crannies in a reef provide ample protection for little spat from predators, as well as homes for a diverse community of other organisms.

Other scientists say reefs also made oysters less vulnerable to being silted over than when spread out across the bottom, as most are now.

Today's "natural" oyster bars are to reefs as weed patches are to robust forests.

Perhaps reefs, when abundant, also caused enough turbulence, currents passed across their jagged surfaces, to mix oxygen from the surface into oxygen-depleted deeper waters.

Divers on the reefs that Dr. Wesson has established have found them teeming with small fish and small crabs.

Speckled trout have come back to areas where they used to be abundant around the first Piankatank reef.

"It is beyond our ability, I think, to imagine what it was like when the reefs were all intact," says Dr. Wesson.

As for the future, he says, he is optimistic "up to a point. We've dug ourselves such a deep hole, the money to bring back reefs [about $80,000 for a big one] on a large scale is monstrous."

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