Best Fishing Spots Revealed – Oyster Reefs!

by Lucie Lehmann

Lured by the fast approaching fishing season, a standing-room-only crowd at SRA’s January 15 Educational Speaker Series gathered to hear Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior naturalist, author and avid angler, John Page (JP) Williams.

JP had great news to deliver: if you want to find some of the best fishing spots, you should first find an oyster reef.

JP’s talk on Jan. 15, Why Oyster Reefs Are a Fisherman’s Best Friend, described how ongoing efforts to rebuild three-dimensional oyster reefs in the Severn and other tributaries have benefited not just the bivalves, fish and other marine life that live on and around them, but also anglers in pursuit of a good catch.

Touching on millennia of estuarine history, Williams explained how oyster reefs and natural outcroppings historically provided food and sanctuary for a wide variety of food sources throughout the Chesapeake watershed.

Critical Changes Since Capt. John Smith’s Era

JP explained how the extensive oyster reefs first described by Captain John Smith in 1608 took seven thousands years to develop.

Unfortunately, it took less than two centuries to deplete those stocks once the oyster dredge was invented and demand for oysters exploded in the 19th century.

Regulations helped limit harvests. Virginia started regulating in 1811. Maryland in 1820.

But today the combined effects of over harvesting, excessive sediment, disease, and low oxygen levels have reduced oyster numbers to just one percent of their historic numbers.  This decline has had similarly ruinous effects on fish and crab populations.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the seriousness of the oyster’s decline really registered as an environmental problem, he pointed out. It was only then that “[w]e began to think of oysters as more than a food source.”

The drawing below is of a healthy 3D reef. The picture is of a new experiment to plant reef balls that are covered with oyster spat to spur development of an oyster reef environment.

The physical characteristics of oyster reefs and their structural ability to support a wide array of marine life, including fish, began to receive much needed attention.

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natural columnar oyster reefs, which watermen flattened to ruinous effect because they interfered with their dredges, play a critical role in preventing the accumulation of sediment on oysters.

Today efforts are underway to create vertical reefs with three dimensional characteristics to allow oysters to not just sit on the bottom, but to live in the middle of the water column.

This helps increase oyster density – and thus fertility – and this creates turbulence that introduces better oxygenation, bringing food to the reefs and removing waste, and providing habitat and prey for fish, crabs and other organisms.

As fishermen know, reefs are meccas for flounder, speckled trout, rockfish and white perch, among other finned species. “3-D reefs are essential to restoring the health of the Bay” and prime fishing holes, Williams asserted. He pointed to the success of the Cook’s Point Sanctuary in the Choptank River as an example.

In addition to its 1213 reef balls creating a 3-D reef that now supports up to 50 oysters per square meter, it’s considered the best fishing spot on the Choptank, reliably yielding large rockfish and drawing fishermen from around the region.

Restored oyster reefs great for fishermen

Williams showed a map of historic and man-made reefs in the Severn, including one over the Winchester Lump, where 240 introduced concrete reef balls have created a 3-D reef now home to millions of spat and other organisms.

Speaking from personal experience, Williams pointed to it as one of the most productive fishing holes on the river, an assertion backed by modern sonar (the pylons of the Route 50 bridge create a similar reef effect for fishing).

Flatter reefs in the Severn, including concrete slabs that failed to provide vertical structure and adequate nooks and crannies for marine life, have been far less successful for oysters, fish and, by extension, anglers.

Challenges Continue Through The Ages

Williams projected a cautious optimism about the future of 3-D reefs, which correct past issues like poor siting and lack of verticality.

Even with careful planning, however, he warned that other factors like 2018’s record rainfall that drastically reduced the salinity of the water in the Severn, as well as the regular appearance of mahogany tides, can spell disaster for the oxygen-dependent oysters and their reefs.

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” Williams conceded, adding that in the last ten years huge efforts have been made to keep the oyster industry alive, including more government funding and new partnerships between non-profits, including SRA, to grow oysters in cages on private docks and create and seed man-made, 3-D oyster reefs.

At the end of his presentation, Williams urged the audience to engage their elected officials on conservation issues, support and be active in organizations like SRA, volunteer for oyster programs and recycle oyster shells. And finally, he added with a big smile and a twinkle in his eyes, get out and “fish the reefs.”

It’s a piece of advice he knows will be even easier to follow once more 3-D oyster reefs are created and thrive.

You can review a video of JP’s presentation on SRA’s Speaker Series Web page. Click here.