Our new “Oyster Reef Ecosystem” exhibit: striped burrfish, blennies, skilletfish, spider crabs, etc.By Virginia Fishes In Uncategorized
Oyster reefs are one of the most productive habitats in the Chesapeake Bay; hundreds of species of aquatic plants and animals grow on and among their shells. The oysters themselves improve water quality and clarity by filtering sediment and plankton out of the water. The natural accumulations of live oysters that have settled upon the shells of their previous generations – essentially what constitutes “oyster reefs”- also serve as natural breakwaters that protect shorelines from erosion.
Last April, we partnered with Professor Russell Burke of Christopher Newport University to help him construct one of many artificial reefs he has installed throughout the Bay to help promote settlement and growth of the American Oyster in the wild. Wild populations in the Bay are at an all-time low due to decades of over-fishing. The most critical obstacles to their recovery are excess nutrients and excessive siltation that smothers the reefs and spat – or young oysters. By placing specially designed concrete “castles” and “diamonds” in strategic positions, spat can settle above the mud, and can now build one-on-another in an ever expanding reef.
Last month, we constructed an exhibit to represent the “before” and “after” of an artificial reef. The left of the exhibit displays an unsettled diamond while the right side displays a diamond from an artificial reef Dr. Burke placed in the Bay; the results are striking. Every square inch of surface area on the “after” diamond is completely covered in massive adult oysters and mussels, as pictured above. All of these shells in turn host: sponges, bryozoans, algae, amphipods, isopods, worms, crustaceans, and a large variety of fishes. It is a complete ecosystem in miniature!
By displaying the actual results of the restoration work and how rich the reefs are in species that rely on them – not to mention the commercial worth of the oysters to humans – we are displaying what is at stake besides the fate of the oysters themselves: the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Once known for its natural riches, it is increasingly known for a system badly out of balance. A system in which the American oyster once lay at the very heart.