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When Captain John Smith entered the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1608, he found oysters in abundance. He wrote in his journal: They'd lay as thick as stones. By the 1800s, watermen were harvesting millions of bushels of oysters every year. Chesapeake oysters became a delicacy served in the country's finest restaurants. But the succulent shellfish have been loved almost to extinction.
Overfishing, disease and pollution have left the Chesapeake with only about 1 percent of the oysters it had back then. Now, scientists and businesspeople are making some headway in bringing them back for the sake of oyster lovers and the bay.
We hear that story from NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Marine biologist David Schulte has been trying to engineer a recovery for the bay's oysters - starting with one of its small tributaries.
(Soundbite of anchor setting)
SHOGREN: We set anchor over one of the reefs he built on Virginia's Great Wicomico River. And he sends what looks like a lime-green, canister vacuum cleaner overboard. It's a remote-controlled submarine.
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SHOGREN: Schulte's theory was, if you build it and build it big enough, they will come. And for the past several years, baby oysters have been coming by the millions to his reefs.
Mr. DAVID SCHULTE (Marine Biologist): Now that, that's a great shot right there.
SHOGREN: He's peering at a screen, at lots of craggy shells standing on end in the murky brown water.
Mr. SCHULTE: Those oysters are all growing very vertically, very densely packed together. Really, this was the first time this was documented in the Chesapeake Bay in over a century.
SHOGREN: A thousand oysters per square meter. That's what nature used to provide, but no one had been able to mimic it. Schulte says his restoration project is working, where many others failed, because he came up with a radically new recipe.
After studying successful restoration projects in other parts of the world, he decided he had to build reefs much larger than earlier efforts. Instead of one acre, his was 100 acres.� And after reading historic accounts of what oyster reefs once looked like, he decided his reefs had to be higher. So he piled up enough shell to stick up a foot or more from the river bottom, instead of a few inches. He hoped that would prevent the oysters from being smothered by the muck, like in previous experiments.
Mr. SCHULTE: And it turns out that from all the data that we've got, I was right.
SHOGREN: Why would that be controversial?
Mr. SCHULTE: It hadn't been done, and it's more expensive.
SHOGREN: Schulte works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and he got $3 million for his project. He says his experiment should be scaled up across the bay to restore the Chesapeake oyster. But lots of other scientists are skeptical. Professor Roger Mann, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, says it would be wildly expensive.
Professor ROGER MANN (Virginia Institute of Marine Science): Once you get into trying to do restoration in very large rivers, the quantities of shell that are needed, and the dollars that are involved in it, get to be extraordinary. And before you start spending those amounts, you need to be absolutely sure that your recipe - that you are using is right.
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SHOGREN: Mann is showing me a hatchery at his university, where he and other scientists are breeding oysters. In one room, several huge vats are filled with vividly colored water: one lemon yellow, one pea green, and others different shades of brown.
Prof. MANN: What you see here is increasing concentrations of algae. This is the food factory for the oysters.
SHOGREN: Oysters eat lots of algae. That's what makes them so valuable to the bay. Scientists estimate that there used to be so many oysters in the Chesapeake that they could filter the whole bay in several days. Now, it takes the few oysters that are left about a year to do the same job.
Mann believes the best way to bring back oysters is to promote a new industry on the Chesapeake: oyster farming.� That way, businesses - not taxpayers - will be footing the bill to put millions of the filter feeders back in the bay.
Prof. MANN: There's a lot of very clever people in this industry who are willing to work hard to build their oyster farms and in doing so, I think, can have really positive ecological effects.
SHOGREN: People like Ryan Croxton. Croxton is counting oysters he just pulled from cages in Virginia's Rappahannock River.� Croxton started oyster farming with his cousin several years ago. His grandfather used to supply oysters to Campbell's Soup. But no one had harvested for many years, and the family was about lose leases it had to work the river.
Mr. RYAN CROXTON (Oyster Farmer): We wanted to keep the lease alive. It had been in our family since the 1890s. And that's when we realized that there was kind of a disconnect in the way we were doing it, and the way we ought to be doing it.
SHOGREN: His grandfather's teams dragged big dredges across the bottom of the river, ripping up the habitat as they went. The Croxtons now grow oysters in cages. They started the farm so they could have a private stash, but they loved the product so much that they decided to aim big.
Mr. CROXTON: So we got a Zagat Guide and we looked at the number one restaurant in New York City, which is Le Bernardin, and just called the reservation line. I mean, it's easy to be bold when you've got nothing to lose. And were able to get an audience with the chef and showed him the oyster. He absolutely loved it.
SHOGREN: Now, they sell 30,000 to 40,000 oysters a week for the half-shell market.
And what about the practices that your grandfather used - what do you think about them now?
Mr. CROXTON: Well, I mean, that's my blood, so I've got to be careful. But I do feel bad about the techniques that they used.�We've completely abandoned all of them.
SHOGREN: Croxton says instead of tearing down the bay like his predecessors, his operation is helping revive it.� He takes me out to see his farm a line of cages in the Rappahannock's choppy water. Croxton says there's no question that the hundreds of thousands of oysters below us are helping remove pollution.
Mr. CROXTON: Each one of these oysters is filtering like 50 to 60 gallons of water a day.
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Mr. TOMMY LEGGETT (Oyster Farmer): So I'll pop in and pull up a clump of these oysters.
SHOGREN: Tommy Leggett agrees that operations like Croxton's do some good. Leggett's an oyster farmer, too. But he also heads up oyster restoration in Virginia for the environmental group Chesapeake Bay Foundation. And he's become a believer in big-scale restoration projects, thanks to a mini-version he built on a tiny creek.
Mr. LEGGETT: Here's one shell in my hand, with three nice oysters on it. And this is all wild oysters from the creek.
SHOGREN: Legget says he hoped some wild baby oysters would settle on the mound of shells he dumped into the creek. But he's been thrilled by how many mature oysters have made this their home. He says large restoration projects would be less likely to fail because of threats like sediment and predators, and would be well worth the high price tag.
Mr. LEGGETT: We're not going to restore the Chesapeake Bay without oysters, period. It's one of the most important cleaners of the bay that we have.
SHOGREN: And Leggett says now is a good time to make big public investments in rescuing oysters. His group recently came out with a report documenting that fewer oysters are dying from two diseases that have long plagued them, and suggesting that they may be developing some resistance. This is good news for oyster farmers and the bay.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.