NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – From the deck of a barge on the Elizabeth River, Gov. Ralph Northam made a historic announcement in Norfolk Thursday.

Nearly 24 acres of oyster restoration has been completed on the river’s Eastern Branch, which has been coined “the lost branch,” because little effort had been put on the restoration of this branch in the past.

As part of the conservation and replenishment program, this summer, The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) restored 21 acres of oyster reefs in the Elizabeth River.

The Elizabeth River Project, along with homeowners, HRSD, the City of Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, created another three acres of oyster reef.

According to ERP, oyster reefs are important because not only do they filter the water, but they also create a habitat for fin fish.

“We are investing $10 million for oyster restoration. Our goal was to restore five rivers: the Lynnhaven River, the Lafayette River, the Piankatank River, the Great Wicomico River, the York River, and now… the Elizabeth River. So we’ve actually gone ahead of what our goal was. We now have six rivers that we’ve done oyster restoration on and we will continue to do that,” said Northam.

The milestone makes the Elizabeth River the second Chesapeake Bay tributary in Virginia to reach the goal set by scientists for full restoration of the oyster habitat. The Lafayette branch achieved the same status in 2018.

According to The Elizabeth River Project, the $10 million commitment marks the first time the General Assembly has invested capital funding into a natural capital project.

The event took place aboard the Dominion Energy Learning Barge which is docked at Grandy Village along the Elizabeth River.

The effort to restore native oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay is one of the largest and most aggressive in the world.

With the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Virginia and its partners committed to restoring native oyster populations in 10 tributaries by 2025.

Since then, Virginia has restored 240.5 acres of native oyster habitat building on earlier restoration of 473 acres. This restoration work has vastly improved water quality and generated billions of baby oysters in the Bay.

In 2014, the Elizabeth River Project (ERP), with help from regional partners, set out to improve conditions along the Eastern Branch.

One of their goals was to restore 10 acres of oysters in the Eastern Branch, which they more than doubled to 21 acres over the summer.

(Photo courtesy: Office of Governor Ralph S. Northam)

“Governor Northam and the General Assembly have set an important new precedent for funding green infrastructure by including capital funds for ecosystem restoration, “ said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler.

“Thanks to the work of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Elizabeth River Project, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other partners, we are already seeing improvements in water quality and more oysters. This $10 million investment will ensure our critical restoration work can continue.”