MIDDLESEX COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — After receiving about $1.75 million in funding from the General Assembly, oyster reef restoration projects on the Piankatank River are up and running. 

The river is everything to commercial fishermen, like Captain Shannon Green.

“I’m been on the water my whole life,” he said. “I also do private ground oyster dredging,”

Making his living on the boat his dad built in Deltaville, the “Linda Carol” was taking a very different journey today on the water.

About a dozen local and state officials were on Green’s boat, from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, The Nature Conservancy and Virginia Commonwealth University, taking a look at how oysters are being brought back in the river.

Green sees a wave of change.

“When I was a kid, the oysters was real plentiful and then they died off, they got the disease,” he said. “Now, they’re back full swing.”

At the turn of the century, there was also significant overfishing in the waters around the Chesapeake Bay.

“We were harvesting 17 million bushels annually. That’s a lot of oysters,” Todd Janeski, the director of the VA Oyster Shell Recycling Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, said. “We were down to about 21,000 bushels in 2003.”

Over the past five years, the Oyster Shell Recycling Program, as well as a number of other organizations, have been trying to bring back the oysters.

It all started with recycling shells from local restaurants, like Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel. The shells are then put into pools with oyster larvae, called spat, which swim around for the first few weeks of their lives before latching onto a shell or a rock.

“About a week and a half after we’ve introduced them into the tank, we’re looking at the success. How well are they growing? How many do we see per shell?” Janeski said.

Once they’re old enough, the shells are then put onto the reefs.  Contractors are working to create these new reefs by using a water cannon to distribute granite along the river bottom.

“About two and a half weeks ago we planted 5 million oysters, through this process in the Piankatank,” Janeski said. “Our goal was to put about six to seven million, that was our target.”

More oysters will be brought out to the new reefs soon.

In all, about 175 acres are being restored. Fifteen of those acres, including a lower part of the Piankatank River, are considered sanctuaries that can’t be fished.

“Ideally, but putting in more oysters in, we’re putting in more, what we’re putting in are wild reproducing oysters,” Janeski said. “The aquaculture industry raises an oyster that doesn’t reproduce.”

In other words, while the oysters are improving the water quality, by filtering the water, they’re not growing in population.

By reintroducing wild oysters into the river, Janeski hopes it’s good for the marine life and people on the water.

“The hope is that it’s expanding the opportunity for folks to have more places to fish to be able to land more oysters,” Janeski said.

A tide of change that looks bright.

“It’s a good future, for people like me and for people who do this for a living,” Green said.

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