Virginia Crossroads: Trains, rivers and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay

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Virginia Crossroads: Trains, rivers and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay (Image 1)

CHESAPEAKE BAY (WSLS) - Much of the water that starts out here in the mountains, eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay, which environmentalists have been trying to "save" for decades. This especially applies to the declining Oyster population.

When you pass a highway sign that says "Entering Chesapeake Bay Watershed," it means that the river you're crossing has water that flows to the Bay. That includes the James, Cowpasture and Jackson rivers among others.

A representative of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Alleghany County says The Jackson River and the CSX Railway operation in Clifton Forge both play a big role in the health of the Bay.

"What happens up here in the mountains of Virginia really impacts the health of the Chesapeake Bay," explained Jake Reilly, director of Chesapeake Bay programs for the Foundation.

Once famous for its oyster beds, the Bay, due in part to the polluted rivers flowing into it, has seen serious declines; to the point the fishery needs a man-made boost if it is ever to recover.

"Oysters have always been an iconic species in the bay. You look back to John Smith and when he came up here about 400 years ago, they were essentially everywhere in the Bay, but the problem really is that oysters are only really occupying about one percent of the area they used to historically occupy before the European settlers came," said Reilly

Scientists at the University of Maryland Environmental Sciences Lab, say these oysters simply can't thrive in the bay because of silt, which is basically dirt covering the floor of the bay. They needed to build a hard-bottomed reef to give the oysters something to attach to. And it turns out what oysters like best is other oyster shells.

When asked if regular rocks would do the trick, Reilly said it's more complicated than that.

"Certainly there would be some amount of recruitment on that or chipped concrete and that's been used in the past, because we haven't had the scope of Oyster shell that we have in the past, but the natural spat, they seem to prefer the oyster shell," said Reilly.

Plans were hatched to build a reef made of only oyster shells, but the project required enough shell to fill 80 football fields a foot deep. An ancient seabed eighteen miles inland in Florida, and dry for tens of thousands of years, is where the shell will come from. It's comparable to a rock quarry, but with shell instead of stone.

"So there's a quarry in Telogia, Florida, which is just outside of Tallahassee, Florid. We found a spot in the area that we're loading 50 car unit trains, which is a dedicated train of nothing but oyster shells, to move from Telogia, Florida up to Baltimore, Maryland, for offloading into barges and dumping into the Chesapeake Bay," explained Tom Fitzgerald, director of minerals marketing at CSX.

Plans call for 135,000 tons, that's 26 train-loads, of oyster shells to be dumped into the Bay. The Foundation struck a deal with CSX to move the shells at a significantly reduced cost.

"And it turns out that we had some coal hopper cars, rotary dump coal hopper cars that we had come available, and we went ahead and decided that the specifications of these cars would work well for all parties involved, from a loading and unloading standpoint," said Fitzgerald.

The trains will transport the shells through the end of 2014. Then barges will haul them to the Bay, where workers will build a man-made, oyster shelf reef, and hopefully the beginning of the resurgence of oysters in the Bay.

"So once this reef is completed, our partners will come in and release baby oysters; call them spat and then let nature do its job. Over time it will build up to the structure we would have expected in prehistoric times," said Reilly.

Reilly pointed out that as filter feeders oysters actually help clean the water in the bay. Meaning, if the reef takes hold, it may begin to heal itself.

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