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Corps prioritizesoyster habitats
Lower Rappahannock has priority over Potomac River in Corps' Bay oyster restoration plan.

 Oysters planted in sites along the Rappahannock River have been found to grow fairly quickly.
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Date published: 2/11/2013



The lower Rappahannock River and a few of its tributaries have priority over the Potomac River when it comes to restoring oysters in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

That's according to a final restoration master plan released Wednesday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is heading up the project.

The plan outlines the Corps' long-term initiative to restore native oyster habitat and populations in 20 tributaries by 2025.

It proposes that 20 to 40 percent of historic oyster habitat be restored and protected as oyster sanctuary. The idea is to have enough brood stock of native Eastern oysters to restock areas where conditions are favorable for their growth and survival.

A draft plan was released for public comment last spring.

Priority areas are designated as Tier 1. The remainder, including the Potomac, are lower priority Tier 2 areas.

The sites getting priority attention, the plan says, "demonstrate the historical, physical and biological attributes necessary to provide the highest potential to develop self-sustaining populations of oysters."

The lower Rappahannock, along with the Piankatank and Great Wicomico rivers on the western shore of the bay, for example, fit into the first category because of growing oyster populations after decades of decline.

Ten Virginia rivers and tributaries, along with 14 in Maryland, are on the priority list.

The effort will be expensive: Estimates for restoring up to 35,000 acres of oyster reef in both states range from about $1.5 to $6.5 billion.

The Potomac River is among the lower-priority areas that have "physical or biological constraints that either restrict the scale of the project required or affect its predicted long-term sustainability," according to the plan.

Historically, the Potomac had been one of the bay's most productive rivers for oysters. In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of thousands of bushels were taken from the river each season. But disease, killing floods, over-harvesting and pollution nearly wiped them out.

In a separate program, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission oversees a restoration effort that includes oyster sanctuaries in selected spots, rotational harvests on others and a managed oyster reserve. Watermen buy into the reserve to plant and harvest fast-growing, sterile Eastern oysters.

The Corps' native oyster restoration plan comes on the heels of a major policy decision on the fishery in 2009. The agency, along with the PRFC and other natural resource agencies, agreed that native Eastern oyster restoration should be the preferred alternative and sole focus of funding and science efforts.

That ended industry-supported efforts to introduce fast-growing Asian oysters to supplement the native stock. Growers were experimenting with a sterile Asian variety, but there were nagging concerns from conservationists and biologists that even "sterile" oysters could eventually become fertile in the wild.

Read the plan: nab.usace.army.mil/Missions/Environmental/Oyster Restoration/OysterMasterPlan.aspx

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com