Nutrient pollution is impacting young oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay. A newly released study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center indicates that “dead zones” – low oxygen areas – caused by nutrient pollution are appearing nightly in shallow waters, near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay’s creeks and rivers.

The “dead zones” make it difficult for oysters to breathe, which compromises their immune systems, leaving them open to a disease called “dermo.”

This has implications for efforts to restore oyster populations in the area. Oysters are not only valued as food, but for the important role they play in filtering pollution and improving water quality. States in the region are investing a significant amount of money to help oyster populations rebound.

Darryl Fears (@bydarrylfears) reports for the Washington Post:

“The oyster’s importance to fishing and water quality in the polluted bay are two reasons why Virginia and Maryland are spending nearly $100 million, with the aid of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to revive their populations.

Virginia embarked on its largest state-funded oyster replenishment in history two years ago, building large reefs on the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers, as well as on the Chesapeake Bay — at Pocomoke and Tangier sounds. That effort added to large sanctuaries in public waters where watermen are restricted to harvesting oysters on a rotating basis about every two years.

Maryland has poured more than $50 million into its oyster recovery effort over the past 16 years, with varied success. The state forbids oyster harvesting on many of its reefs, protecting them with a fine of up to $25,000 and a sentence of 15 years in prison.”