NOAA awards VCU grant to lead research on oyster reef restoration efforts

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Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center have been granted $181,000 to examine the natural benefits restored oyster reefs provide to various fish species. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office awarded the grant that will fund research on Virginia’s Piankatank river.

The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Marine Resources Commission and Army Corps of Engineers are working together to replenish the Piankatank river with oysters, using restored reefs to provide habitats for fish and crabs. VCU researchers will examine how these efforts are enhancing fish populations and diversity compared to areas that have not been restored. Additionally, the NOAA will use sonar to map and survey the bottom of the river in order to identify the best locations to site future oyster restoration projects.

“The cooperative nature of this project allows us to quantify an important ecosystem service of oyster reefs – the production of ecologically and commercially important fish,” said principal investigator Stephen McIninch, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences.

The three-year research project will build on two years of survey work VCU has already completed with The Nature Conservancy. Prior surveys have helped to develop a baseline of fish abundance and diversity before reef construction.

“It’s important to recognize that restoring native oyster populations is significant on its own, but that it also has benefits to fisheries and those that depend on healthy fish populations for economic and recreational reasons,” said Andy Lacatell, conservation specialist at The Nature Conservancy. “This work is important to rebuilding a vibrant natural fishery that supports working watermen and the general public, in addition to improving water quality.”

The Piankatank is one of 10 tributaries targeted for oyster restoration under the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Results from this research will help to assess progress toward that goal.

“NOAA is looking forward to the results of VCU’s research,” said Peyton Robertson, director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. “The findings from this project will help us to understand better the value of oyster reef restoration for important commercial and recreational fish species.”