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Lafayette River Oyster Reef Protection Measures

Published: September 17, 2015

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) recently voted to increase protection for oyster restoration sites in the Lafayette River near Norfolk as well as other Virginia tributaries.

For decades, the Lafayette River has been closed to oyster harvesting due to poor water quality; recently, water quality has improved.

State regulators are considering changing rules to allow for the leasing of river bottom for oyster aquaculture in the Lafayette under certain strict conditions.

Restoration partners in the Lafayette Oyster Restoration Workgroup are led by NOAA and include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the City of Norfolk, the Elizabeth River Project, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Christopher Newport University.

Partners assess the rivers oyster population and plans and tracks progress toward the goal of a river-wide restored oyster population.

Workgroup members have provided significant funding for oyster restoration efforts in the Lafayette River, in large part because neither wild harvest nor leasing of these areas for private cultivation has been allowed there.

In late 2014, the City of Norfolk, supported by the Lafayette Oyster Restoration Workgroup proposed to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission that it create an oyster sanctuary in the Lafayette River to protect restoration sites and relict reefs.

While the eventual regulation, as approved in March 2015 by the Commission, does not specifically create sanctuaries, it does prohibit oyster harvesting (both wild harvest and leasing for aquaculture) in the Lafayette and other condemned Virginia tributaries.

Due to its good natural spat set, the presence of several oyster restoration projects, non-harvest status, size, and strong interest from watershed groups, the Lafayette River is the site of a large-scale oyster restoration project; one of the ten called for by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

The river's oyster population is doing well, according to NOAA. A survey by the agency ascertained that the Lafayette River has approximately 60 acres of oyster habitat, in addition to the restoration sites.

Two independent oyster population surveys conducted by the Army Corps/Christopher Newport University and by NOAA/Virginia Institute of Marine Science show that the Lafayette River contains natural, functioning oyster reefs on grounds that have not been disturbed or harvested for many decades.

Those surveys estimate that there are more than 16 million subtidal oysters in the river with an average of 61.9 oysters per square meter on existing reefs.

In addition to subtidal oysters, a survey of rip rap and shorelines of the river by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Elizabeth River Project measured estimated 2 million oysters there.

The combined populations (subtidal and intertidal) are a major source of oyster larvae, producing high recruitment throughout the Lafayette River, and even in portions of the Elizabeth River.

Since 2010, partner investment in Lafayette River oyster restoration totals approximately $1.55 million supporting more than 10 acres of new reefs.

source: NOAA Fisheries