by Mary Reid Barrow
The oyster condo real estate market is hot in the Lynnhaven River these days.
Though LRNow’s oyster condos are designed for baby oysters, called “spat”, spat aren’t the only renters who love these homes. The condos are metal cages filled with comfy empty shells and rent quickly to a mix of residents, who are looking for an abode near food sources and other amenities.
Judging from the condos, brought into LRNow this week by volunteers who cared for them over the last year, there was no lack of tenants ranging from oyster spat to various fish and crabs.
This year the small cages were furnished with discarded whelk shells, which seemed to attract spat renters, said Helen Kuhns, LRNow’s assistant director. Other years, cages, have been filled with oyster shells or concrete to test which home, or substrate, oyster babies, prefer to land on.
After male oyster sperm and female eggs meet by happenstance in the water, baby oysters are born as free-floating larva and must settle and attach to a hard surface nearby to grow up.
Helen, who oversees this Spat Collection Program, said the 10-year-old study is designed to assess the distribution of thses baby oyster larvae throughout the river each year. Where the most larvae settle is an indication of the river’s health and where new oyster reefs might be productive.
Volunteers turned in their cages encrusted after a year in the water with seaweed and shells and filled with critters. They left with a fresh cage of shells for this year’s spat survey.
LRNow volunteers and volunteers from the City’s Environmental Studies and Legal Studies programs and the Business Academy then took over to count and record the number of spat they found on the shells. The shells are then returned to a reef in the river where the baby oysters can grow up.
And volunteers carefully put the other critters who had their lease so rudely terminated into a separate aquarium.
A striped blenny that grows no bigger than four inches was an early arrival. A cute little fish, the blenny has two feathery horns on its head and looked like it was walking around on the aquarium bottom with its two front fins.
The blenny would have been attracted to the privacy of one of the shells in the cage where it would most likely lay its eggs.
Several tough little mud crabs were oyster condo renters too. If the oysters had their say, there might be rental restrictions on these little troublemakers. Mud crabs like to eat young oysters, among other young shellfish. The crabs are small, but their claws are mighty, and they use them to crush the shells.
Also among the tenants in the oyster cages were tiny oyster crabs, less than an inch long that are shopping for a permanent home inside a living oyster or other shellfish.
Blue Crabs showed up too, Helen said, along with some small unidentified fish and several small oyster toads. “The oyster toads loved curling up in the whelk shells,” she said.
The critters also would be returned to the river. Only they would have to go condo hunting again.
This spring LRNow is still looking for a few good leasing agents for some oyster cages. If you have access to tidal waters in Virginia Beach and would like to participate in the spat collection program, contact Helen Kuhns firstname.lastname@example.org.
See LRNow’s spat collection maps from years past at: https://www.lynnhavenrivernow.org/spat-collector-program/