Inlet is example of oyster repopulation


Lynnhaven: Despite disease and predators, the project has shown progress and inspired a larger effort.

September 02, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

This time a year ago I was kayaking alongside reefs of native bay oysters in Virginia's Lynnhaven Inlet, near where the Chesapeake meets the Atlantic.

"Lynnhavens" once were known throughout the oyster-eating world, prized by gourmets, slurped by presidents and allegedly served on the Titanic and other luxury liners.

But there was scarcely a live oyster to be found there by the mid-1990s, when Rob Brumbaugh, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist, would take kids there for environmental education.

Why? You've heard it ad infinitum: diseases, pollution, overfishing. The disease that began to hammer the bay's oysters in the early 1960s actually fueled the overfishing. "If you don't catch 'em, they'll die anyhow," became the mantra.

"There has been a huge and simplistic tendency to say diseases are killing all our oysters," Brumbaugh said as we paddled by banks of bivalves, shells opened to filter nutrients from the incoming salt tide.

In fact, he said, closer observation shows that "boring sponges, red tides, low oxygen, crabs, cow-nosed rays - all these have major impacts on oysters.

"They all get lumped into, `Oh, the native oyster isn't making it in the bay anymore.' But these will kill any oyster, native or Asian, disease-resistant or not," he said.

Spurred by Brumbaugh, about $600,000 of public and private money went to restore oyster reefs in the Lynnhaven. No fishing was allowed. Disease killed many, but many survived. Rays, which can chew through an adult oyster, took out some, but not nearly all.

"Is this success?" Brumbaugh mused as we paddled. "More like a work in progress - but progress." Oysters had increased at least tenfold, he thought, noting that a tenfold increase is the official bay goal for oysters.

The Lynnhaven was about one-thousandth of the whole bay's waters. "A thousand times the $600,000 we spent here - it's simplistic, but it gives you a notion of what we might need to spend to meet baywide goals, maybe half a billion. But we're only spending a few million a year."

Jump to 2005, and to the Great Wicomico River, which flows out of Virginia's Northern Neck near Reedville.

There, the Army Corps of Engineers' Norfolk district, allied with federal, state and private partners, has embarked on a unique, large-scale attempt to jump-start native oyster populations.

Convinced by Brumbaugh and others that a large-scale effort establishing a critical mass is key to restoration, the Corps is placing 15 million adult oysters on about 4 acres of reefs. They are natives, but bred for disease resistance.

There have been setbacks: an early, devastating attack by rays, whose numbers have markedly increased in the bay, and delays in getting oysters.

But by year's end the great experiment will be in place, says Brian Rheinhart of the Norfolk district.

The hope is that the oysters will produce young "spat" in numbers that will not only replenish the core, sanctuary reefs, but also harvestable, commercial oyster bottoms throughout the river.

Next year, Rheinhart says, the Corps will begin a similar large-scale restoration at Lynnhaven Inlet.

Natural gas terminal also a nature preserve

The Russian with the camera aimed toward the big liquid natural gas terminal at Cove Point in Calvert County seemed suspicious. A diplomat, he was arrested last year by security types.

Turns out he was indeed photographing the plant, but the plant was a woodland orchid, one of many natural treasures nurtured around the big facility.

This rare mix of nature preserve and energy production dates from the early 1970s, when the Sierra Club and the Maryland Conservation Council sued to stop an LNG terminal on lands once intended for a state park.

Negotiations led to a unique partnership, in which the project proceeded but the enviros got permanent say on everything from the height and placement of gas tanks to preserving much of the 1,220-acre site in woods and marshes.

More than 30 years later, the partnership includes a land trust and a science advisory panel picked by environmentalists. Much of this was the brainchild of the late Ruth Mathes, an MCC leader and employee of what is now the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"We've been very satisfied with how it has worked," says Mary Marsh, president of MCC. "There are just a lot of conversations that occur that don't usually happen between environmentalists and energy companies."

Some environmental stipulations actually saved the terminal money, she said, such as elimination of a pier running a mile into the bay for offloading gas.

An underwater tunnel was built - more expensive, but bulletproof against wreckage from hurricanes and tropical storms, like Isabel, and more secure from possible terrorist activity.

The terminal's owners, Dominion Cove Point LLC, are doing an environmental impact statement now to pave the way for a major expansion to meet booming energy demands.

My guess is their project, even though it's on the bay shore, will gain relatively smooth acceptance because the environmental perspective is already well represented.

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