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Heather North Lockwood is the Virginia Oyster Restoration Specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). She is a Marine Science graduate of Coastal Carolina University, and recently received her Masters of Science at John Hopkins University in Environmental Science and Policy. She loves learning as much as she can about oysters and in her free time enjoys reading and surfing in Virginia Beach.
I am originally from New Jersey, so I did not grow up in the watershed. I didn’t know just how important oysters were until attending college at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. I took a marine biology course where we studied oysters and the effects of a native oyster disease called dermo, which sparked my enthusiasm for oysters. I became fascinated with marine parasites and diseases. After school I worked at Ripley’s Aquarium as a show diver and educator, as well as working as a PADI assistant instructor at a local dive shop where I obtained my USCG captain’s license. I loved being out on the water and guiding dives, but I wanted to do something more involved with education and science. During my job search I was pleasantly surprised to find a Chesapeake Bay Foundation job posting in oyster restoration. This position recommended having a Captain’s License so I was excited at the opportunity to apply my recent completion of the captain’s course. I was hired in 2014, and I’m constantly learning, which is something I looked for in a “big girl job.” I still had a desire to get my masters degree, so I applied to the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Johns Hopkins University in 2016 while staying on as a full-time employee of CBF. I graduated with my masters in December 2017.
There are two types of oyster diseases that are commonly talked about in the Chesapeake Bay. Dermo is a disease native to the Bay and then MSX, another disease, was introduced in the mid-1950s. We saw dermo’s negative impact in our oyster population in the 1970s. There was already a lot of pressure on oysters from overharvesting, as well as anthropogenic causes and increased industrial development. Dermo’s infection rate is salinity-based, so we have more disease pressure here in the southern Chesapeake Bay as opposed to the upper Bay. More recently MSX and dermo are not as much of an issue, due to the the fact that oysters are constantly evolving and developing a resistance and tolerance to diseases. With aquaculture, oysters are spending less time in the water, so there is less opportunity for the disease to contact with the tissue and take hold. The parasite enters the body as the oyster is filtering water and rapidly multiplies in the oyster tissue. When the oyster dies, and the shell opens up, those parasites are released back into the water column and can affect other oysters. Dermo really starts to impact an oyster after about three or four years until it kills them. Neither of these diseases are harmful to humans, however, there are other waterborne illnesses that are – so always know where your oysters are coming from!
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and I are supporters of both aquaculture and commercial fishing. CBF used to train watermen on how to grow oysters in a sustainable way, but since the industry has really taken off, we no longer need to hold those trainings. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a CBF partner located by our restoration site, has been breeding strong, disease-resistant oysters. Scientific advances and technology have aided in the rebound of our native oyster population, as well as providing an abundance of farm raised oysters for our dinner plate.
Virginia Institute for Marine Science (VIMS) has been a partner of ours for a long time. VIMS has agreed to share their property on Gloucester Point with the Foundation. We definitely don’t do anything alone. We work with Lynnhaven River Now, Elizabeth River Project, Army Corps of Engineers, The Nature Conservancy, and so many more. When we get everyone around a table, it’s amazing to hear each person’s specialty and what knowledge they have to offer. We’ve all worked together to restore five tributaries in Virginia by 2025. Currently, we’re in the process of completing the Lafayette River in Norfolk. The Lynnhaven River also supports a thriving oyster restoration program as well as recreational and educational activities near the CBF Brock Environmental Center. The role of our main partner, Elizabeth River Project, is to obtain the permits, contracts and build the reefs while CBF’s role is to collect the shells, set them with oysters and plant them onto the sanctuary reefs. It’s great to partner with others to bring the oysters back – not only for water quality and habitat enhancement, but for Virginia’s way of life and economy. That’s one of my favorite parts of the job. I get to meet people from all over, with different backgrounds and knowledge to share. Last week I met three people from Hong Kong who are just at the beginning stages of implementing oyster restoration practices.
The 10 Billion Oyster Project is a goal under the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a partnership of over 40 organizations, with CBF taking a lead role in organizing and bringing everyone together. In order to reach our goal of adding 10 billion oysters back into the Bay by 2025 (we started at 0 in February, 2018), it will take all of the partners. The biggest contribution will be from aquaculture businesses. The watermen who are part of this effort are recording how many oysters they are putting in the water, which will be quite substantial during the next seven years. Chesapeake Bay Foundation will also be contributing towards this goal, and we will have a good gauge by February, 2019 to measure our first year’s effort. The Alliance has other objectives besides adding 10 billion oysters. We are hoping for a Bay-wide stock assessment to figure out how many oysters are in the Bay right now. It is the only commercial industry we do not have a number for – which is surprising considering we have numbers for blue crabs, rockfish, menhaden and just about every imaginable critter, but not for oysters. We know that the number of oysters in the Bay is a fraction of what it used to be – but that exact number remains unknown.
Our website is a great tool to look for opportunities. Whether you want to work on planting trees, restoring shorelines, or work on oyster restoration, the website will help put you in contact with the right people. We always need help with shell collection, cleaning and planting. When I took over the shell recycling program in 2014, there were only about seven restaurants participating and now we have over sixty. Our shell collection program has grown to the point where we are able to meet our own needs and still help other organizations with their restoration projects. Also, individuals can drop shells off to various locations in the watershed, including the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia which is on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Maryland residents can utilize eight different shell collection centers, including the Annapolis Yacht Club and Phillip Merrill Center.
I absolutely love Shenandoah National Park, I love going there for hiking, biking, and observing wildlife. Virginia is such a nice home base. You can get to the beach or the mountains within a day’s drive, unlike most of the Mid-Atlantic region. I’ve definitely found my “forever home.” I also have an odd connection to the Lafayette River, in Norfolk. I say odd because it’s located in downtown Norfolk, highly urbanized and not the cleanest of tributaries. However, we have been working there since I started with CBF in 2014, planting millions of oysters, engaging thousands of volunteers, deploying hundreds of reef balls and it’s going to be the first river to meet the Bay-wide goals for a restored tributary. It’s so uplifting to be part of this effort; I’ve helped, literally, with blood, sweat and tears, restore this river. In the summer of 2016, the river was lifted off of the impaired waterways designation and is now swimmable and fishable. Next it could be open for oyster relay or direct shellfish harvest, you never know. The recovery of the Lafayette River is yet another example of how all of our combined efforts are working. Planting oysters, installing living shorelines, fixing sewage outfalls and educating the public is working. All of our efforts to help Mother Nature restore our beautiful watershed is working. But the work won’t stop here – we still have a long way to go, and I hope to be there every step of the way.
Shenandoah National Park is your escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows—plan a hike, a meander along Skyline Drive, or a picnic with the family.