13 oyster restoration projects win funding to advance research, education, tech and low-cost solutions to revive Chesapeake Bay

On December 21, 2021, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, in partnership with the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance (COA), announced the approval of 13 grants in Maryland and Virginia for the Chesapeake Oyster Innovation Awards, a program supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).

This partnership is awarding $127,185 while leveraging an additional $90,000 in match, for a total of $217,185 towards accelerating oyster restoration efforts. The purpose of this award program is to increase knowledge within key audiences of the value of oysters, oyster fisheries, and aquaculture efforts; advance technologies for increasing oyster population or aquaculture production; and advance oyster population monitoring techniques.

This program is unique in that it provides accessible grants that lead to innovative and low-cost solutions to problems that affect the entire oyster sector. The various awardees – business owners, universities, or non-profit organizations – will reach many audiences, raising awareness for ongoing oyster restoration,” said president of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Dr. Jana Davis.

Oysters, oyster restoration, and oyster aquaculture activities world-wide provide a diverse range of environmental and economic benefits, such as providing and enhancing marine habitat for commercial and recreational fishes; boosting the economy through seafood production, through marketing, and by providing a way of life for watermen; buffering sensitive coastal shorelines from wave energy; and improving water quality through filtration.

The funded projects will highlight the ecological and economic importance of oysters to the Chesapeake system, the rich cultural history of the Chesapeake oyster, and the desire to increase the number of oysters in the Bay for economic, cultural, and ecological reasons. The projects proposed by Chesapeake Oyster Alliance Partners and awarded here all represent novel approaches to expanding the number of oysters in the Bay as well as our understanding of this keystone species.

Founded by the CBF in 2018, the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance is a coalition of more than 80 partner organizations, businesses, and academic institutions committed to adding 10 billion new oysters to Maryland and Virginia waters by 2025. In addition to tracking the number of new oysters going into the Bay, the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance provides various funding mechanisms such as this grant program, as well as, supporting COA Partners, educational programs for the public, and promoting partner events as well as its own signature events.

The Chesapeake Oyster Innovation Awards will lead to projects such as “Raising the Bar: Oyster Science and Innovative Resources for Educators and Youth” from the Smithsonian Institution. The program will create resources for educators, students, and community members about cutting edge research on oysters into lessons supporting best practices for engaging and educating students through the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience.

The innovation does not stop at education, however. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science will focus on technological advancements while working to improve inventory management techniques through the integration of Radio Frequency Identification technology. Monitoring will also be addressed with projects such as the “Systematic Approach to Severn River Oyster Restoration” from the Severn River Association. Their goal will be to monitor water quality conditions in 10 historic oyster reef sites and to refine current oyster reef dive programs.

The Chesapeake Bay will never be restored without the return of a healthy, thriving oyster population. We need innovative solutions to bring oysters in our region back from the brink,” said Tanner Council, Chesapeake Oyster Alliance Manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “That’s why supporting creative projects like these is essential to both reaching our goal of adding 10 billion oysters to Chesapeake waters by 2025 and saving the Bay.”

Chesapeake Oyster Innovation Program Awardees:

University of Maryland Baltimore County – $10,000
This project is a collaboration between Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), Mark Street Ventures LLC, and True Chesapeake Oyster Co to advance technology for increasing oyster population and aquaculture production. Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems will be employed for rearing the early-stage oysters overwinter to eliminate the recurring mortality events in the Chesapeake Bay oyster farms. Major objectives of this project are to establish optimal conditions for farming oysters during winter using the ability of RAS technology to provide a consistent and controlled environment. The objectives will be achieved using a state-of-art RAS facility, Aquaculture Research Center, at IMET.

Black Girls Dive Foundation, Inc. – $10,000
Collaborative Oyster Restoration and Education is a collaborative oyster monitoring and educational conservation effort between Black Girls Dive Foundation and the Severn River Association that is proposed in response to three critical issues: (1) the fragile oyster population; (2) the need for the advancement of collaborative strategic partnerships that provides quality robust aquatic-STEM engagement learning for underserved audiences n STEM; and from an education and equity standpoint, (3) the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap that undermines our ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity; and the post-pandemic fallout within the educational system that has furthered the divide. The proposed project activities involve engaging girls from late middle school and high school in an out-of-school time, marine science-based, program that takes place on the Severn River. This project utilizes innovative pedagogical tools and a blended learning delivery model that enables youth to connect their learning through in-field experiences on the Severn River.

Shored Up, LLC – $9,925
This project is composed of 3 narrated kayak tours in Downtown Hampton that will take place June, July, and September of 2022 with the theme “Oysters make the Bay a better place for business!” Each tour will illustrate the role that oysters play in creating a healthy Chesapeake Bay, which in turn, supports businesses and our economy, and include efforts to restore the oyster population. The narration will be told through the lens of Hampton’s unique oyster and seafood history, including the role that Native Americans and African Americans played, and how that history impacts our present-day Bay. A celebration, “Shellabration” will follow in Nov. 2022.

Smithsonian Institution – $9,900
Ensuring that educators, youth, and other residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed understand the value of oysters and oyster reef ecosystems is critical in order to continue building support to increase the abundance of oysters in Chesapeake Bay. Through the proposed project, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland will create digital resources for educators, stakeholders, students, and parents and incorporate cutting edge research about oysters into lessons to be used both virtually and in-person, to support learning and Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences. All resources will be made publicly available on the Smithsonian’s main digital collections portal, called the Learning Lab (Learninglab.si.edu).

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science – $9,900
Improving hatchery production efficiency, which varies greatly, would aid hatchery profitability and ease grower concerns about seed availability. This project will study variability of oyster hatchery production outcomes (yield) and determine predictors of the outcomes to improve effectiveness of oyster hatchery production. Production data will be compiled from the Horn Point Laboratory’s oyster hatchery and relevant information on weather and water conditions near the hatchery. The data will be used in machine learning techniques to identify important predictors of low and high aquaculture yield. The selected predictors will inform the hatchery about appropriate practices to improve cost effectiveness and will be used to construct models capable of predicting oyster aquaculture yields for given conditions and confidence level. The results and source code will be shared publicly.

Rogue Oysters LLC – $10,000
This project aims to solve the myriad problems of cumbersome gear types associated with on-bottom farming by developing a new type of farm gear that will aid small farms and oyster gardeners by reducing labor and its physical toll, increasing efficiency, and allowing bottom farms to better compete with float farms on shell aesthetics. Bottom cages that are prevalent throughout the Chesapeake Bay estuary system must be lifted with an expensive, custom-built crane and emptying the cages to work the oysters is a physically tolling process. This organization has designed a new system of bottom cages and boat rigging that can be worked by one person without the expensive crane that can be a barrier to entry or the physical demand of handling 400+ pounds of oysters in one cage. This technology also opens oyster gardening up to a new population of people who do not have a dock in clean water for a large float but can drop a tube-like cage much like a crab pot.

Severn River Association, Inc. – $10,000
Severn River Association (SRA) will use a three-pronged approach to the continued and expanded restoration of oyster reefs on the Severn River to include: (1) water quality monitoring to track conditions at 10 potential historic oyster bars, (2) annual oyster reef dive program to conduct annual dives on 5 existing restoration reefs to monitor oyster health, population, density, survivability, predation, disease and other factors associated with health, and (3) determining future reef sites. Building on the 2021 scientific oyster dive program initiated with Trust grant support, SRA will use technology and oyster dive operations to explore and characterize which of the historic oyster reefs detailed in a 1911 survey would be the most suitable locations for creating future oyster restoration reefs.

St. Mary’s River Watershed Association – $10,000
Engaging the public in hands-on events provides enhanced opportunity for effective messaging. Volunteers will plant two million oysters in Breton Bay and St. Mary’s River sanctuaries. During these volunteer events, a personal connection is made between the volunteer, the oysters, and the health of our waterways. Educational programming occurs concurrently focusing on (1) oysters as a keystone specie, (2) sustainable practices for the homestead and recreational boater, and (3) the need for increasing public support for oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science – $10,000
Many oyster farmers struggle to keep up with their inventory, costing them time and making decisions with less than perfect information. This project aims to improve inventory management techniques through the integration of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. This pilot study will take place at Cappahosic Oyster Company in Gloucester, Virginia, and will be evaluated through the lens of this business. If RFID shows promise in the tested conditions, the group will work with researchers and growers assessing oyster populations to advance methods that incorporate RFID in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

Portsmouth Public Schools – $9,995
The Portsmouth Public Schools Oyster Project will engage students in a Meaning Watershed Educational Experience with a focus on an oyster float experiment, oyster growth data collection and analysis, oyster habitat, oyster life cycle, oyster anatomy and the impact oysters have on the environment. Students’ final products will educate residents about the value of oysters through the development of scientific Public Service Announcements via social media and other local advertisement strategies. Students will be hands-on raising oysters, collecting oyster data, analyzing data, exploring oyster habitats, and building oyster reefs.

Oyster Seed Holdings – $10,000
Oyster Seed Holdings (OSH) is an independent commercial hatchery that wants to get the word out to the public about the importance of hatchery sciences in the process of oyster aquaculture. Few in the public are afforded the opportunity to see a commercial hatchery. OSH aims to provide education to the public by allowing the public to come to its hatchery for tours and also to bring the hatchery to the public by creating and demonstrating a micro-hatchery. These efforts will be supported by enabling video technology as a teaching aid.

Annapolis Aquaculture – $7,865
This project will provide the initial effort to evaluate equipment and process improvements to enable efficient and effective weekly desiccation, tumbling, and treatment to reduce fouling for bottom cage oyster aquaculture. This improvement is greatly needed since current methods of monthly bottom cage cleaning for this small aquaculture operation are labor intensive largely due to aggressive marine biofouling and the lack of other automated equipment. The Nix Cove Oyster Farm is located on the Nansemond River lease on a tidal flat where oyster cage aquaculture is very successful; however, traditional bottom growth, both natural and seed-on-shell, is not. This challenge is typical of a significant number of oyster leases of the James River tributaries providing a vast acreage for potential for expansion of bottom cage aquaculture. This project will document improvements resulting from the use of equipment and processes for bottom cage aquaculture that will be acceptable for oyster bottom lease owners in areas similar to Nix Cove.

Lynnhaven River NOW – $9,600
Through the Spat Catcher program, Lynnhaven River NOW will provide two cages to residents to maintain for one year. One cage will contain shell and the other cage an alternate substrate to be tested and compared to shell, since shell can be a limited resource. The residents will hang the cages from docks in various parts of the Lynnhaven River and Rudee Inlet/Owls Creek in Virginia Beach. The residents receive training about oysters as a keystone species in our marine ecosystems as well as oyster restoration. At the end of one year, the cages will be turned in and the oyster spat counted by volunteers. The spat numbers will be tracked and mapped, providing data on temporal and spatial spat set variation. The shells and substrate containing the spat will then be placed on sanctuary reefs in the Lynnhaven River.

Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

See the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance website.

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