A CSX freight train loaded with an estimated 2,750 tons of fossilized oyster shell from a Florida quarry is delivering a big boost to Maryland’s efforts to bring oysters back in the Chesapeake Bay. The shipment is the first of dozens that will transport oyster shell to the Chesapeake between December 2013 and September 2014.
The shell, which arrived in Baltimore Harbor on December 13, is a key part of the largest natural oyster restoration project ever undertaken in the Chesapeake and one of the largest projects of its kind in the nation. Once it’s transferred from 25 rail cars at the Port of Baltimore, it will be delivered by barge to Harris Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There, it will be deposited on specially-selected portions of the creek bottom, where it will form the basis of an extensive new oyster reef system throughout the creek.
Over the next ten months, CSX's Oyster Express will transport a total of 112,500 cubic yards of shell to the site -- enough to cover 80 football fields a foot high. The material will build about 70 acres of underwater habitat that will serve as nursery grounds for young oysters, create habitat for a variety of fish species and help clean the water.
Oysters, which feed by pumping water through their gills, were so plentiful in the Chesapeake in the 1700s that they could filter its entire volume in a matter of days. Captain John Smith described reefs so large that they rose above the water’s surface, creating hazards for navigation. For more than a century, oysters were one of the most valuable commercial fisheries in the country.
Today, after decades of over-harvesting, disease and poor water quality, the Bay’s oyster population has plummeted and now stands at only two percent of its historic level. The success of projects to restore healthy reefs hinges on providing just the right surface for baby oysters, or spat, to reproduce. And the best possible material to build an oyster reef is natural oyster shell.
“NFWF’s partnership with CSX has provided an amazing opportunity to help accelerate oyster restoration in the Chesapeake,” said David O’Neill, NFWF’s Vice President for Conservation. “Connecting CSX’s transportation services with the great work of the State of Maryland and its partners, including the Oyster Recovery Partnership, is another example of how public and private interests can work together to restore a healthy Bay ecosystem.”
Once completed, the new oyster bed in Harris Creek will be ready for the addition of spat, which are raised at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory. Since the year 2000, the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, which is administered by the NFWF, has provided $3 million to support oyster propagation and research at Horn Point.
“The restoration of the Chesapeake Bay oyster beds is critical for this region’s environment and economy – oystering is truly a way of life here in Maryland,” said Michael Ward, chairman, president and chief executive officer, CSX. “CSX is proud to be a part of this visionary public-private partnership to help restore one of our nation’s greatest natural assets, the Chesapeake Bay. Sharing expertise among these organizations, and tapping into each group’s unique strengths, is the only way this project could be done.”