Volunteer gathering oysters.

Restoring the Chesapeake Bay, One Oyster at a Time 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is one of the leading organizations in Virginia that works to restore state waters through education, advocacy, litigation and restoration programs. 

The Chesapeake Bay itself is a rich habitat for over 3,000 species of plants and animals and critically depends on oysters. These mollusks play a vital role in filtering and purifying water, in addition to offering habitats for various bay inhabitants like fish and crabs. As a result, an increase in oyster population translates to a healthier ecosystem and improved water quality.  
In our conversation with Jackie Shannon, Virginia Oyster Restoration Manager at CBF, we explored several of the foundation’s ongoing projects across the commonwealth. These initiatives invite participation from Virginians, regardless of their proximity to the water.  

Shell Recycling 

A significant venture under CBF’s umbrella involves the shell recycling program. Partnering with about 40 restaurants and numerous oyster roasters throughout Virginia, CBF facilitates the recycling of oyster shells, which then are repurposed for living shoreline projects. These efforts are instrumental in reintegrating oysters into the bay, bolstering the habitat.  

“With shell recycling, I think it’s a way that people can enjoy the bounty of the bay and not feel guilty about it,” Shannon said. “That’s because shell recycling is a way that you can put oysters back into the water in a very tangible way.” 

The success of this program heavily relies on volunteers who manage the collection and organization of shells, streamlining their return to the Bay. 

Shell Bagging 

“Volunteers are critical to our success,” Shannon said regarding the shell-bagging program, which involves packing 10-15-pound shell bags, then submerging them in 850-gallon tanks before being placed into the Chesapeake Bay. “They’re really the boots on the ground– they go to the restaurants and get the shells, they’re at the oyster roasts keeping everything organized, making it a lot easier to streamline the process.”  

The shell bags are made throughout the fall, winter and spring to prepare for the large-scale work in the summer. When water temperatures rise, usually around late May, CBF then adds oyster larvae to the shells, which then are scattered over reefs to allow the oysters to multiply in their natural habitat.  

“In this process, we can produce upwards of 10 to 15 million baby oysters,” Shannon said.

Oyster Gardening 

Annually, CBF conducts 10 seminars from the Northern Neck to Virginia Beach on oyster gardening to complement the shell recycling process. The process allows for the system to come full circle, engaging approximately 700 oyster gardeners across Virginia. Participants receive a batch of spat-on shells, otherwise known as baby oysters, that are placed in wire cages made from materials like vinyl-coated mesh and suspended from the docks of private residences. Over a year, these gardeners nurture the oysters until they’re ready for restoration.  

“Our gardeners are amazing,” Shannon said. “They love to tell stories about what they’re finding in their cages; they become very inquisitive and take a lot of ownership over their oysters.” 

To learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, visit its website. 

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