Hampton River is Full of Oysters, Just Don't Eat Them

Jan 6, 2017


Jonathan Rogers with an experimental shell string used to catch oyster larvae
Credit Kenny Fletcher / CBF

In Newport News, the Hampton River's shores are lined with wild oysters. But the water is so polluted you can't eat them. So why is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Hampton University trying to plant more oysters? Pamela D'Angelo went out on the river to find out.


To put it bluntly, Hampton River has a poop problem.

Failing septic systems, marinas, and pet waste washed into it by rain from the many yards and parks that line the river, all contribute to bacteria that makes it deadly to eat wild oysters here. Gone are most of the oyster reefs, stripped by over-harvesting and disease. To survive, oysters in their larval stage need to attach to hard surfaces.

Jackie Shannon manages oyster restorations for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. 

"It was taking out a lot of future habitat for the baby oysters to land on," says Shannon. "We've ended up with a bay that's comparable to a desert."

Shannon says one oyster can filter some 50 gallons of water in a day. Adding more can control problematic algae that thrives on sewage. 

Jonathan Rogers, a student from Hampton University, spent the summer finding where baby oysters called spat grow best.

"This is our Hampton University location, which is actually one of the most successful locations," he says as he tugs on a line hanging from a pier and pulls up one of the tools he uses to catch and measure baby oyster populations along the river.

"This right here is a spat catcher," Rogers explains. "It's a wire cage that's filled with 50 oyster shells and you can actually see the oyster spat on the shells."

The team pulls up under the Booker T. Washington Bridge where they look for high concentrations of mature oysters during low tide. Clusters of wild oysters are attached to the bridge pilings, nearby outflow pipes and even an abandoned bicycle. And that's a good sign says Shannon.

"It's a sign that the water quality can support their life. They're obviously thriving there, they just need more places to land."

The team will map the best places to plant oysters, then next year begin the process to restore oyster reefs.