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Virginia CZM Program Oyster Restoration Efforts

oyster graphicIn 1999 the Virginia CZM Program initiated the Virginia Oyster Heritage Program (VOHP) investing significant coordinative effort and over $1.5 million to help protect and restore our native oyster populations. This public-private partnership leveraged additional funds and led to the construction of more than 80 sanctuary reefs and 1000 acres of harvest area in Virginia's coastal waters. In 2007, as pressure mounted to open oyster sanctuary areas to harvest, the Virginia CZM Program reconvened the VOHP partners and created an innovative Oyster Management Plan for the Lower Rappahannock River. This plan included harvesting on a 3 year rotational schedule and a buy-back program for large oysters that were returned to the sanctuaries. The pay-off for this investment over the past ten years has been substantial. Oyster harvests have increased from 23,000 bushels worth $575,000 in 2001 to 236,000 bushels worth $8.26 million in 2011. To learn more about the Program's more recent oyster, eelgrass and bay scallop restoration on the Seaside of Virginia’s Eastern Shore go to the Virginia Seaside Heritage Program

Oyster Restoration Successes Fact Sheet - June 2012 (pdf)

Virginia Seaside Accomplishments Report - June 2013 (with funding chart) (pdf) -- includes update on oyster and scallop restoration efforts on the Seaside of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Oyster Quiz

Reef Art

  • Why are oysters important to the health of Virginia's coastal waters?
    Answer: Oysters filter and clean the water. Clean water is essential for the growth of subaquatic vegetation (SAV).
  • What are spat and where do they live?
    Answer: Spat are immature oysters. During the last free-floating stage of the oyster's lifecycle, it is known as a veliger. When the veliger settles permanently on the shell of a mature oyster, it is called spat.
  • Name three reasons why oyster reefs are important?
    Answer: An oyster reef is home to oysters both young and old. The reef contains nooks and crannies which is in turn used as a home and a hiding place for small fishes and invertebrates. Small animals provide food for larger reef dwelling animal species. The reef offers a fascinating view of predator-prey relationships and the coastal food chain.
  • How are oysters uniquely adapted to their environment?
    Answer: Their hard outer shells provide protection from predators living on the reef. However, when the oysters is still young, its shell is soft and it is prey to animals like the Blue Crab. Hiding among adult oysters protects the young oyster from predation.

Basic Oyster Facts

  • The native eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, usually lives in water depths of between 8 and 25 feet and naturally forms three-dimensional intertidal reefs.


  • An oyster orients itself with the flared edge of its shell tilted upward. The left valve is cupped, while the right valve is flat. The shell opens periodically to permit the oyster to feed on plankton.
  • Oysters usually mature by age one. They are protandric, which means that in the first year they spawn as males, but as they grow larger and develop more energy reserves in the next two to three years, they spawn as females.

Oyster Spawning

  • An increase in water temperatures triggers the male oyster to release sperm and the female to release eggs into the water. This triggers a chain reaction of spawning which clouds the water with millions of eggs and sperm. A single female oyster produces 10 to 100 million eggs annually.
  • The eggs are fertilized in the water and soon develop into larvae, or veligers, which are drawn to the chemicals released by older oysters on the bottom. Oysters need to settle in a suitable spot, such as another oyster’s shell. Juvenile attached oysters are called “spat.”

Oyster Educational Materials from Virginia CZM

Omar of the Reef Costume

Omar of the Reef

Official mascot of the Virginia Oyster Heritage Program, Omar was featured on a temporary tattoo with the message "I Filter Water!" Regretfully Virginia CZM's supplies of tattoos are depleted, but if you are interested in using Omar's image to produce tattoos or other handouts for children, please contact

Omar has achieved international stardom!!  Read more - Omar Visits Japan!

Amazing Oysters Activity Book

Amazing Oysters

Build a 3-D Oyster Pop-Up Reef. It's fun and easy to make! (SOL 3.4, 4.8, 5.9, 6.11)

Downloadable copy of Amazing Oysters - pdf

For hardcopies, contact

"Build-A-Reef" Mural Activity

Students help build an oyster reef on the large mural and populate the reef with some of the 300 species that inhabit the reef. Engaging children in this activity helps teach them how the reef grows and why an oyster reef is critical habitat to other marine species.

Bilud-A-Reef Oyster Activity

Download plans to construct and conduct this oyster reef educational activity - Build A Reef Design Plans and Instructions - pdf

Download marine animals to use in Build A Reef activity - Reef Animals - zipped JPEG files  (If these graphics are reproduced for purposes other than the Build-A-Reef activity, credit must be made to the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.  Thank you.) 

Download GIF of Build-A-Reef Mural (10.5" x 7") for reference.

More Educational Resources About Oysters

Chesapeake Bay Program: multistate program producing information on water quality and living resources in the Bay.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation: middle school curriculum, field trips and student oyster restoration projects. Or, call CBF at (804) 780-1392.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science: curriculum supplement and teacher training program called VORTEX, Virginia's Oyster Reef Teaching Experience.  For more information, including current oyster research and a VIMS aquarium visit call (804) 684-7000.

Related Lesson Plans
Project Aquatic WILD: Designing a Habitat, Something's Fishy Here, and Fashion for a Fish. For information go to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Web site or call (804) 367-1000.

Additional Resources
CHeSSIE: Chesapeake Science on the Internet for Educators
Virginia Project WET
Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay
ACB's Bay Journal

Oyster Anatomy
Book - Eastern Oyster - Crassotrea virginica

"Lynnhaven Soup" - Kingston Elementary School's Recipe to Rescue Its River
Can 600 elementary school students stop Slim Sludge from polluting the Lynnhaven River?  Kingston Elementary students showed how they can do just that in "Lynnhaven Soup" - an original 35-minute drama they presented alongside faculty and parents at their Virginia Beach school in March. "Omar of the Reef", mascot of the former Virginia Oyster Heritage Program, made a special guest appearance representing the River's oyster population.   

Oysters Modeling in Virginia's Schools
The Office of Environmental Education at DEQ worked closely with two schools in Tidewater Virginia to develop and implement, "Oyster Model Schools," a model instructional program that uses estuarine and oyster reef ecology as an organizing theme for instruction. 

Omar Visits Japan!

U.S. Japan Oyster Reef Symposium LogoOmar of the Reef, official mascot of the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program’s oyster restoration and gardening efforts, traveled to Chiba Prefecture, Japan in April 2007!

Omar received an official letter of invitation to assist with outreach at the U.S.-Japan Oyster Reef Symposium.  The collaborative symposium, organized by Japanese researcher Urara Takashima, brought together oyster experts from the two countries, including Dr. Mark Luckenbach from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to focus on the ecological value of natural oyster reef habitat.  Research on oysters in Japan has historically focused on commercial oyster aquaculture.  Funding for the U.S.-Japan Oyster Reef Symposium was furnished by the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, further demonstrating the value of partnerships.

Urara Takashima visited Virginia in the spring of 2006 to learn more about the state’s oyster reef restoration efforts and gardening practices after she Kaki-hime of the Reefdiscovered wild oysters in Tokyo Bay.  The partnership between Virginia and Ms. Takashima began with an e-mail to the Virginia CZM Program for more information about oyster reef habitat.  The program responded with oyster educational materials, including images of Omar.  Ms. Takashima shared these materials in her efforts to educate Japanese citizens about the value of oyster reef habitat.  At the behest of school children, who thought Omar needed a Japanese friend, she created “Kaki-hime”, or “princess oyster”. 

A Japanese translation of Virginia’s oyster gardening manual is also being distributed!


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For comments or questions concerning this program's web pages, contact the Web Author.

This web site is provided by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program through a federal Coastal Zone Management Act grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce.

Oyster Gardening

Oysters in Oyster Gardening Float

Want to Learn How to Oyster Garden?!  Go to...

Crab on Oyster Shell

Oyster Reefs Provide Habitat!

Oyster reefs can have fifty times the surface area of an equally extensive flat bottom! Nooks and crannies between all the shells provide habitat for an enormous range of other animals, such as worms, snails, sea squirts, sponges, small crabs and fishes. Even young oysters (spat) hide inside empty shells to escape predators!

Oysters Filter Water!

Oysters consume algae by filtering water at a rate of up to 1.3 gallons per hour! Scientists believe that the Bay’s once-flourishing oyster populations cleaned the estuary’s entire water volume of algae and sediments every three or four days.

Oysters on the Halfshell

Oysters Provide jobs!

For more than 100 years, Virginia’s watermen made their living harvesting oysters for resale to restaurants and seafood wholesale companies. What most people know about oysters is how they like to eat them - raw, roasted, fried, smoked, steamed, in fritters or in stew!

Crab in Seagrass

Oysters Help Seagrass Grow!

An excess of algae in the water blocks sunlight from reaching underwater gasses. Underwater plants need sunlight to grow. When oysters eat this excess algae, they help seagrass grow! (Learn more about seagrasses...)

Help us spread the word. There is much each of us can do - whether it's oyster gardening, protecting the quality of the water that enters our coastal rivers where oysters are struggling to survive, or sharing the educational products we have to offer below.

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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000

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