VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia - If you had come to the Dockside Raw Bar and Grille a few months ago and ordered oysters on the menu, the oysters the restaurant would have served you would have been flown in from Florida or from some other part of the country.
That's a shame. Because the oysters that once came out of the waters behind the restaurant were once a world-famous delicacy. They were known as Lynnhaven oysters and were served in the finest restaurants across the country. They were also specifically requested by presidents and kings.
Local Group's Goal: Clean Up River
The oysters' name is derived from the Lynnhaven River, an estuary in Virginia Beach, Va., at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay.
When English settlers first colonized the area in the early 1600's, the Lynnhaven was teaming with oysters. But by the mid-1900's, over harvesting and polluted water had decimated the popular delicacy.
Karen Forget leads the volunteer group known as Lynnhaven River Now, that's committed to cleaning up this historic body of water.
Virginia Beach is the state's most populated city. Thirty-five percent of the land surrounding the river is covered by hard surfaces like rooftops, driveways and roads.
"So on 35 percent of our watershed, when it rains the water goes directly into the storm water system, which goes directly back into the river and it carries with it whatever is on that surface," Forget explained.
Forget's group has rallied governmental agencies to address the problem. The city agreed to increase street sweeping in neighborhoods surrounding the river.
But Forget says it's local residents that can make the biggest difference by doing little things. Like hooking up rain barrels to down spouts to keep water from going directly into the drainage system and into the river.
"And then you capture some of the runoff from your roof when it rains and that water is available for you to use for your plants for your garden," she said. "You can fill up a watering can with it."
The group has produced some clever television commercials. One TV spot encourages homeowners to limit their use of fertilizer and lawn chemicals by asking a simple question, "More fertilizer with your flounder?"
Another commercial is directed at pet owners. "This is dog poop," an announcer says. "And this is how dog poop gets into the river. Please, scoop the poop."
It's now against the law to dump any sewage from a boat into the Lynnhaven River. Many of the local marinas, as well the sanitation department, provide a pumping service.
"But a major factor in the clean-up has been the oyster itself," Forget told CBN News. "Believe it or not, one adult oyster like this can filter about 50-gallons of water a day. That's why volunteers have built 36 acres of conservation reefs like that one to provide new habitat for the oyster. If we had a little aquarium here," she continued, like a little 10-gallon aquarium, and I put the dirtiest water you've ever seen in it and put a couple of oysters in it for about an hour, at the end of the hour the water would be clear."
The Lynnhaven isn't clear, but it's much cleaner than it was. Three years ago, only one-percent of the river was open to oyster harvesting. Now, that's up to almost 30 percent and the Lynnhaven oyster is making a comeback.
"These are mature and ready to go to market," Oyster farmer Cameron Chalmers explained. "They're anywhere from three to six inches."
Chalmers sold his landscaping business to become a full-time oyster farmer. He has about 250 of baskets in the water with a few hundred more that will be ready for market next year. Chalmers says he is grateful for the work forget and her volunteers are doing.
"They've really gotten the community excited about cleaning up the river and it's just been a huge impact," he explained. "All the watermen owe them something."
Local restaurants like the Dockside Inn agree. They began selling Lynnhaven oysters last fall. They're not cheap at about $10 for a dozen. That's because there isn't a big supply yet and the demand is big.
Reverend Ralph Weitz is with the Cornwall Alliance, a coalition of religious leaders and scientists committed to bringing a balanced biblical view of environmental stewardship. He applauds the strategy being used in Virginia Beach.
"It's very practical application of environmental concern and that's where we Christians can be very hands-on and be involved in it," Weitz said. "And it creates employment and I think that's an important part, not only for the local economy, but our economy in general."
CBN News asked Weitz why he thought so many people are comfortable about getting involved with the Lynnhaven oyster project. Weitz says it has to do with people wanting to get involved to help the local community.
"It's really hard for people to relate to big global issues like global warming," he said. "But this is their own back yard, this is their community. And we've enjoyed tremendous support from the people in Virginia Beach who are really behind this effort to clean up their river."