Anecdotal reports have long indicated that oysters, Crassostrea virginica (Gmelin), in the Chesapeake Bay once grew in large 3-dimensional reef structures. However, hard evidence of widespread 3-dimensional oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay has been scarce. This study uses data collected from historic charts of the James River, one of the most productive oyster producing tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, to examine the natural occurrence of these reefs as well as their destruction. An early series of charts from the 1870s clearly documents widespread emergent oyster reefs in the James River from Burwell's Bay to Newport News Point. They were long, fairly wide, and shoal-like and oriented at right angles to the current. A 1940s series of charts indicates that by this time nearly all of these reefs had become submerged. Paired t-tests indicate a significant decrease in reef height and volume but not in reef area. This suggests that oysters and shell have been physically removed from the reefs. This likely had a major impact on water circulation patterns over and around the reefs, which may also have further adversely affected oyster populations.
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Vol. 24 • No. 1