Oyster reefs play an important ecological role throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. They provide essential habitat in their three-dimensional shape for the Bay's oysters, finfish, and crabs. They are especially beneficial to oysters because they maximize spawning efficiency by putting male and female oysters in close proximity to one another. They also provide protection for the young of the year (spat) from predation. Much of the oyster reefs within the Chesapeake Bay have been lost to harvesting pressures, silting, oyster diseases and pollution. This has had a large impact on the oyster populations within the Bay, which is currently thought to support only 1% of its historic stocks.
Since 1993, the Conservation and Replenishment Division of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) has completed more than 14 oyster reef restoration projects throughout the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. The restoration in the Great Wicomico River produced 2500 bushels of oysters which were placed on a three-dimensional reef. By the summer, the spatset increased by 200 to 26,000 percent. The NOAA Restoration Center has joined together with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to continue Virginia's successful oyster reef restoration program in the Elizabeth River.
This community -based restoration effort was implemented by volunteers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, citizens in the Hampton Roads area, and the VMRC with funding provided by NOAA and the Virginia Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund. Oyster shells were used to rebuild an oyster reef on a historic footprint adjacent to a natural oyster bar. Local middle and high school students grew more than 100,000 bushels of hatchery-produced seed oysters in floating cages. At the end of the academic year, local marine contractors planted the oysters on the reconstructed reef. The effort was a truly unique approach to the restoration of oysters and has encouraged similar projects in other parts of Virginia. Its educational and ecological benefits makes it a model for establishing partnerships between communities, conservation organizations, and state and federal government agencies for achieving environmental restoration.