Scout Service Project Helps Bring Life Back to Chesapeake Bay

Since the nineteenth century, Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has plummeted to perhaps 1 percent of its historic levels. A harvest that once numbered in the millions of bushels has been reduced to a few thousand bushels per year.

Of course, that precipitous decline is a problem for people whose livelihoods depend on oysters, as well as for those who simply love to eat the tasty mollusks. But the impact goes much farther because of the environmental value of the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). According to the Chesapeake Bay Program (http://www.chesapeakebay.net), a single oyster can filter two gallons of water per hour simply through the act of eating. By one estimate, the bay’s nineteenth-century oyster population could effectively filter the entire bay—some 18 trillion gallons of water—in a matter of days; today that process would take more than a year. As a result, water that once was clear to a depth of 20 feet is now full of excess nutrients, sediment, industrial waste, and sewage runoff.

DSC_0201While it will take a host of different efforts to bring Chesapeake Bay back to good health, restoring the bay’s oyster population is a key goal of groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (http://www.cbf.org) and the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association (http://www.oystergardener.org). In 2014, they were joined by a Virginia Boy Scout named Cameron Bruce. For his Eagle Scout service project, Cameron raised and harvested some 2,400 oysters over a six-month period, oysters he calculates have cleaned some 43.8 million gallons of water since his project ended in September 2014. Cameron’s project earned him council-level honors in the Glenn A. and Melinda W. Adams National Eagle Scout Service Project of the Year Award program for 2016.

DSC_0265Cameron’s project may have spanned half a year, but it required barely 400 hours of actual work. He and his volunteers first built 17 Taylor floats, which are 3′ by 2′ baskets made of PVC pipe and vinyl-coated wire mesh. (Such floats are designed to provide oysters with room to feed, plenty of moderately salty water, and protection from predators and silt.) Cameron then deposited oyster spat (baby oysters) in the floats and attached them to piers along the Elizabeth River, a tidal estuary at the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. Over the next six months, he and his volunteers visited the floats every couple of weeks to clean off barnacles, sea urchins, and accumulated debris. Once the oysters had grown large enough, he deposited them on a reef identified by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (which also issued a permit for him to do the project).

All told, Cameron spent about $1,200 on his project. Or, to look at it another way, every 500 gallons of water his oysters have cleaned to date cost 1.4 cents.

Crassostrea virginica lives up and down the eastern seaboard, as well as on the Gulf Coast, so people in much of the country could pitch in to help restore this important native species. But oysters aren’t the only species in danger. Other Scout- and family-sized conservation projects include planting trees, building birdhouses and bat houses, developing butterfly gardens, removing invasive plants, turning discarded Christmas trees into fish habitat, and re-vegetate damaged meadows and hillsides.

By doing projects like these, small groups of people can have a measurable impact on species under stress. And if a byproduct of their work is more oysters to eat or more wild birds to enjoy, so much the better.