Oysters in the Chesapeake Bay: When Partnerships Work

A Kellum Seafood boat delivers crushed concrete to the site of an oyster sanctuary on Virginia’s Piankatank River. Over a three-week period, Kellum Seafood distributed concrete onto the 21-acre site. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

By Bob Vanasse

Too often, environmental groups, regulators and fishermen find themselves cast in antagonistic roles on marine issues. Prolonged legal and regulatory battles frequently top headlines, while successful conservation partnerships go unheralded. The Chesapeake Bay, long plagued by problems like pollution and runoff, is benefitting from one such partnership. Regional fishermen, government agencies and environmental groups are cooperating to restore the Bay’s iconic oyster fishery. It’s one of the best examples of how an effective public-private partnership works toward building a sustainable fishery and a better environment.

“Restoring oyster reefs in Chesapeake Bay is essential because they play so many critical roles,” said Mark Bryer, Director of the Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Program, which helped bring private funds to restoration efforts in Maryland, particularly to examine their effectiveness. “We know from experiences here and around the world that success requires large-scale action and everyone playing a part, including the oyster industry, private citizens, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.”

Virginia has long supported oyster bed restoration. Last year alone, the state spent $2 million building and maintaining artificial, state-owned beds built on old oyster shells. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) works with several local and national partners to monitor and maintain the 240,000 acres of public oyster beds, and allows local watermen to fish them on a rotational basis. It’s an innovative solution that’s paying off.

“We’ve made a remarkable recovery in the last 10 years,” said Dr. James Wesson, who heads the VMRC’s restoration effort. Virginia watermen harvested 406,000 bushels of oysters last season, valued at over $16 million. It was the state’s largest harvest since 1987, and more than 17 times larger than the 23,000 bushels harvested in 2001.

Beyond boosting local businesses’ bottom line, reviving oysters is also a boon to the Bay as a whole. Oysters, by removing nutrients from the water as they feed, are among the most effective filterers in the Bay. A healthy oyster population helps control the Bay’s nutrient levels, limiting deadly algal blooms and improving the Bay’s health.

Some of the Bay’s biggest fishing companies are vital to the effort. Virginia oyster processors like Bevans Oyster Company, in Kinsale; Cowart Seafood, in Lottsburg; and Kellum Seafood, in Weems, provide the VMRC with the recycled shells necessary for the project. Each year, shells are distributed to replenish the oyster beds, with the newly laid shells allowing oyster larvae to settle on the beds and grow into new oysters. Kellum also contracts with the VMRC to deliver the shells and other materials to beds across the state, using boats designed to travel in the shallow waters where the beds are located.

“It’s a great opportunity in fisheries management for the industry to be able to support the sustainability of the fishery,” said Tommy Kellum, of Kellum Seafood. “It’s one of the few fisheries where the byproduct of consumption – leftover shells – can be used to sustain the resource.”

Kellum Seafood, a major oyster shell supplier, unloads materials into Virginia's Piankatank for the construction of a new oyster sanctuary. Photo courtesy Larry Chowning, National Fisherman.
Kellum Seafood, a major oyster shell supplier, unloads materials into Virginia’s Piankatank for the construction of a new oyster sanctuary. Photo courtesy Larry Chowning, National Fisherman.

Omega Protein Corporation, which operates the largest fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, annually donates the use of land at its Reedville, Va. facility to serve as a staging area for the recycled oyster shells before they can be redistributed to the state’s reefs. In addition to providing storage space, the company’s facilities are a convenient, centralized location, with easy access to the Bay and major rivers.

“We’re very happy to help with Virginia’s oyster restoration efforts by providing shell storage and deep-water access for loading,” said Monty Deihl, Omega Protein Corporation’s Senior Director of Plant Operations in Reedville. “A thriving oyster population is vital to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, our fellow watermen’s livelihoods, and the state’s economy.”

Oyster sanctuaries are key to long-term rebuilding efforts. Maryland maintains an estimated 9,000 acres of sanctuaries, including the largest in the world: the Harris Creek sanctuary, containing 232 acres of reefs that will eventually support 2 billion oysters. Virginia also works with NOAA, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and conservation groups on sanctuary construction. Its latest effort is a joint project funded by a $500,000 grant from the Nature Conservancy, which was matched by the VMRC and leveraged against $2.8 million allocated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The project, constructed by Kellum Seafood, is designed to repopulate Virginia’s Piankatank River with new oyster larvae.

“We’re really excited to be doing large-scale oyster restoration,” said Andrew Lacatell, a Conservation Specialist with the Nature Conservancy. “Large-scale restoration would not be possible without partners in the industry, the US Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA and the VMRC.”

This broad level of support and the ongoing success of oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay isn’t just great news for area watermen and the nation’s oyster aficionados. It serves as a useful model for how industry, government, and conservationists alike can work to build an environment that makes everyone better off.


Bob Vanasse is the Executive Director of Saving Seafood, a non-profit organization that conducts media and public outreach on behalf of the commercial fishing industry, providing members of the fishing community with information about decisions that affect their livelihoods. 

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