VCU Rice Center

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News and events
July 23, 2014

Three-year grant funded for oyster restoration study

Oyster reef restoration benefits, in terms of enhanced production for economically and ecologically important fishery resources, is receiving increased attention due to widespread loss of the habitat and increasing demand for sustainable seafood from intact reef ecosystems. In response to this, “Pathways to Production: An assessment of fishery responses to oyster reef restoration and the trophic pathways that link the resource to the reef” is being funded through NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Fisheries Science Program. Dr. Steve McIninch of VCU's Center for Environmental Studies is the Principal Investigator on the study.

The Piankatank River, a sub-estuary of the Chesapeake Bay, is a focal point for large-scale oyster reef restoration. Many agencies are involved, most notably NOAA, The Nature Conservancy, VMRC, and the Army Corp of Engineers. VCU Rice Rivers Center is leveraging this construction, and partnering with TNC, to examine how the fish community responds to the restoration and maturation of these constructed reefs. The three-year study will allow for community research both before and after new reef construction, as well as comparisons with existing established reef communities. Standard collection methods will be used (traps and nets), as well as a hydroacoustic array to quantify movements of fish on and off the reef.

The new reefs are being constructed with concrete and so will take some time to become colonized by oysters and other marine organisms. This will also afford the opportunity to assess the differences between simple structure (concrete) and a mature reef. One of the more difficult aspects will be to examine the contribution that reefs have to non-resident fishes that may be of commercial importance. So, how does an adult bluefish or red drum that does not stay on the reef benefit from the reef aside from occasional habitat? This question will be examined by using diet analysis and stable isotope examination of both predator and prey, allowing the charting of a trophic pathway to and from the reefs.

As a valued cooperator to this project, The Nature Conservancy is actively engaged in oyster restoration in Virginia and will be constructing up to 74 acres of oyster reef in the Piankatank River over the next two years. Using a $500,000 grant along with other private donations and state (VMRC) matching funds, 31 acres of reefs will be constructed to provide seed oysters and an additional 43 acres of sanctuary reefs (no commercial harvest permitted).