Data for a Healthy Chesapeake Bay

Feb 13, 2023

Virginia’s $40 million oyster industry relies not only on clean water quality, but on organizations like the Virginia Reserve that track water quality.

While others might cheer the spring return of warmer temperatures to Virginia’s Lower Potomac, A.J. Erskine eyes the related runoff with a bit of concern.

“All that snow melt from the upper Bay can alter the chemistry of the hatchery seawater,” says Erskine, the founder of KCB Oyster, a commercial hatchery that supplies oyster larvae and seed to Bevans Oyster Company and Cowart Seafood Corp. “These parameters have to be in a certain range for oyster larvae to succeed.”

Virginia is the largest oyster producer on the East Coast, with wild and farmed oysters bringing in approximately $40 million annually. Understanding in-the-moment changes in pH, salinity, and other parameters is critical information for hatcheries like Erskine’s and the farms they support. For help, he turned to Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Reserve, which installed a station that continuously monitors water quality on the hatchery’s pier in 2019.

“Our operation is in a low salinity environment, which makes it challenging to determine the best time to spawn,” says Erskine. “The data the Reserve collects makes available real-time data on pH, salinity and chlorophyll levels, which helps us pick a time when we are more likely to be successful.”

The data Erskine relies on comes from an ever-broadening monitoring program that has been decades in the making. The Virginia Reserve began tracking water quality at fixed stations along two of its sites in 1997. The Reserve currently monitors water quality at 19 fixed stations within Virginia tidal waters in partnership with NOAA, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Chesapeake Bay Program, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Through these collaborations, the Reserve collects more than six million water quality samples each year.

“When we see opportunities to support operations like KCB, we try to help,” says William Reay, director of the Virginia Reserve. “It all started with our NERRS System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP), but it’s become much bigger as we’ve built out our observation network to meet the needs of as many stakeholders as possible.”

In addition to water-based industries, the Reserve supports key stakeholders in aquatic health assessment and protection, ecosystem response to a changing environment, and support for communities impacted by storm and long-term changes in sea levels. 

In 2003, as part of its work to support the shallow water habitat assessments the Reserve expanded the spatial reach of its monitoring with Dataflow. From its mount on a research vessel, this mobile surface mapping system collects water quality data every few seconds as it travels through tributaries and coastal waters. These surveys, along with other Reserve monitoring programs, have generated more than 180 million samples that are accessible by anyone on the Virginia Coastal and Estuarine Observing System (VECOS).

“The powerful thing about the data from these high-frequency monitoring programs is the density of information provided in minutes,” says David Parrish, environmental data center manager at the Virginia Reserve. “This is useful for someone interested in short-term events, for example, responsive oyster farm management, the extent and intensity of harmful algal blooms, heat wave and water clarity impacts on seagrasses, or the impacts of a cold stun on a fishery,”

But now, Parrish says, with more than 20 years of data in the bank from all of the Reserve’s monitoring, scientists and resource managers also can begin to look at questions related to longer-term trends, like the impacts of warming waters and streamflow on water quality.

For Chesapeake Bay scientists, resource managers, and businesses alike, it’s clear that keeping track of water quality is an integral part of the resilience of natural resources, communities, and the economy.

“Everything that comes through the watershed into the Bay is important to the community and we are part of that community,” says Erskine. “Good water quality starts with monitoring and understanding your system; that’s what makes the work the Reserve does so important.”

Keeping tabs on water quality is key for resilience of natural resources, communities, and the economy.

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ReservesChesapeake Bay, VirginiaData for a Healthy Chesapeake Bay