Ten Chesapeake Bay tributaries have been selected for oyster reef restoration: Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River, Tred Avon, upper St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers in Maryland, and the Great Wicomico, Lafayette, Lower York, Lynnhaven and Piankatank rivers in Virginia.

Each of these tributaries is at a different level of progress in a process that involves developing a tributary restoration plan, building and seeding reefs, and monitoring and evaluating restored reefs. Monitoring and evaluation—which will take place at three- and six-year intervals following construction and seeding—will determine whether a reef can be considered restored and whether this outcome has been met. This phase will not be complete until after 2025. More information about monitoring and evaluation protocols, frequency and success metrics can be found in a metrics report from the Oyster Metrics Workgroup.

Interactive Chart

Oyster Reef Restoration (2019)

Individual acreage targets are based on a tributary’s historic oyster habitat and currently restorable area. The Upper St. Mary’s, Manokin and Great Wicomico rivers will be added to this chart once their target acreages are established.

Interactive Map

Oyster Restoration in Chesapeake Bay Tributaries (2019)

According to the Maryland and Virginia Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroups, partners have invested more than $62 million in oyster restoration in Chesapeake Bay tributaries over the past nine years. The table below depicts the following information about the tributaries that have been selected for oyster restoration: where planning and restoration stand; the acres of reefs that have been restored toward established targets; and whether monitoring and evaluation is underway.

Download the Oyster Reef Restoration Progress Dashboard (.xlsx)

According to Maryland’s Oyster Restoration Update, 788 acres of oyster reefs are considered complete. Record rainfall in 2019, with resulting freshwater flows and below-average salinities, resulted in low oyster seed production at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery, the primary seed producer for the effort. This meant there was only enough seed to plant on 11 acres, a typical year is around 100 acres.

  • Initial restoration is complete in Harris Creek. The Harris Creek restoration plan originally called for 377 acres of reefs to be restored. This target was later revised to 351 acres. Between 2012 and 2015, 351 acres of reefs were built and seeded with spat, marking the completion of the initial restoration phase for the largest oyster restoration sanctuary in the United States. Since completion, efforts have focused on monitoring and conducting second-year-class seedings. Monitoring will continue through 2021.
  • The Little Choptank River restoration plan calls for 440 acres of reefs to be restored. Of this total, 45 acres already met our definition of a restored reef, by virtue of the existing natural oyster population. In 2019, eight additional acres of reefs were restored, bringing the total acreage of restored reefs in the Little Choptank to 351. Seven remaining acres in the river are suitable for seed-only reef construction, and these are a high priority for seeding in spring or summer of 2020.
  • The Tred Avon River restoration plan calls for 147 acres of reefs restored in the sanctuary. As of 2019, nearly 87 acres of reefs have been restored. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) plans to construct approximately 40 more acres of reefs as early as December 2020. An additional six acres are suitable for restoring by planting only oyster seed (‘seed-only reefs’) and are high priority for seeding in 2020.
  • For the upper St. Mary’s River, pre-restoration sonar and oyster population surveys have been completed. The workgroup has completed a restoration plan that calls for 60 acres of reefs to be restored in the river. The restoration plan was reviewed by the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission and a group of scientific and community consultants.
  • The Manokin River was approved as the tenth tributary by the Sustainable Fisheries GIT in June 2019. The workgroup has developed draft restoration plan that calls for a total of 441 acres of reefs in the river. This goal is draft and may change.

According to Virginia’s Oyster Restoration Update, 539 acres of oyster reefs are considered complete. Prior to large-scale restoration toward the outcome, 364 acres of existing oyster reefs already met the Oyster Metrics success criteria from a combination of previous restoration projects and reefs that self-restored. In 2019, partners constructed an additional 94 acres of oyster reefs. To date, one Virginia tributary, the Lafayette River, has been restored.

  • The Lafayette River restoration plan calls for 80 acres of reefs to be restored. Of the 80 acres, 70 acres already met our definition of a restored reef due to older existing restoration projects (22 acres) and historic reefs (48 acres). The initial restoration phase for the Lafayette River was completed in 2018. The project is now in the monitoring phase.
  • The Lynnhaven River restoration plan calls for 152 acres of reefs to be restored. Prior to 2019, an estimated 91 acres of existing oyster reefs had been restored or were functioning at a restored level. In 2019, an additional 14 acres of reef were constructed in the Broad Bay and Humes Marsh areas of the Lynnhaven River. This leaves 47 acres to be restored.
  • The Piankatank River restoration plan calls for 438 acres of reefs to be restored. Of this total, 203 acres already met our definition of a restored reef. In 2019, partners built 47 acres of reefs, bringing the total to 317 restored acres. Plans are in place to construct at least 33 acres in 2020.
  • The lower York River restoration plan calls for 200 acres of reefs to be restored. In 2019, partners constructed 33 acres using fossil shell material.
  • In the Great Wicomico River, partners are working to develop a restoration plan, expected to be completed in 2020.

Overharvesting, disease and habitat loss have led to a severe drop in oyster populations over the last century. Oyster restoration at the tributary level aims to increase oyster populations to provide the ecosystem services that oyster reefs perform.

Tracking our progress toward restoring oyster reefs is critical to understanding our progress toward enhancing climate resiliency. Oyster reefs promote clean water, provide food and habitat to species threatened by climate change, and protect shorelines from strong waves. The latter mitigates the impacts of coastal floods and reduces the extent of property damage caused by storm events. For these reasons, oyster reefs help us prepare for some of the disruptions that climate change can cause.

Management Strategy

To achieve this outcome, Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to:

  • Planning and implementing oyster reef restoration in select Maryland and Virginia tributaries.
  • Coordinating and communicating our progress toward and research related to oyster reef restoration.

Monitoring and assessing progress toward the outcome will occur at the reef, tributary and Chesapeake Bay-wide levels. Reef- and tributary-level monitoring will take place at three and six years after restoration is complete to determine if a tributary has been successfully restored according to agreed-upon metrics.

As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s partnership-wide implementation of adaptive management, progress toward this outcome was reviewed and discussed by the Management Board in November of 2019.

Logic & Action Plan

Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to taking a series of specific actions that will support the management approaches listed above.

Completed actions from this outcome's Logic & Action Plan include:

  • In 2019, the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT) approved the selection of Manokin River as the tenth tributary chosen for oyster reef restoration. The Maryland Interagency Oyster Team and Maryland Department of Natural Resources recommended Manokin River as suitable for large-scale oyster restoration.

Participating Partners

The Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team leads the effort to achieve this outcome. It works in partnership with the Vital Habitats, Water Quality and Healthy Watersheds goal implementation teams.

Participating partners include:

  • Maryland Department of Natural Resources (State of Maryland)
  • Virginia Marine Resources Commission (Commonwealth of Virginia)
  • City of Norfolk
  • City of Virginia Beach
  • Christopher Newport University
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Virginia Institute of Marine Science
  • University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
  • Potomac River Fisheries Commission
  • Chesapeake Bay Commission
  • National Marine Fisheries Service (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation
  • Elizabeth River Project
  • Lynnhaven River NOW
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Oyster Recovery Partnership
  • Oyster Reefkeepers
  • Pleasure House Oysters