Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.Sc.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


With the recent growth of the hard clam aquaculture industry, sites of intensive aquaculture have emerged as large-scale agro-ecosystems where the success of aquaculture production is dynamically linked to ecosystem function. Large scale clam aquaculture operations are associated with a range of potential positive and negative feedbacks related to nutrient dynamics, water and sediment quality, proliferation of macroalgae, and carrying capacity. Quantitative modeling tools are needed to support system-level planning related to site selection, scale of operations, production capacity and ecosystem function. The purpose of this study was to develop a model for Cherrystone Inlet, VA, where one-third (1.9 km2) of the sub-tidal bottom area is held as 37 separate, private shellfish leases with an estimated 100-150 million cultured clams. A reduced complexity estuarine ecosystem model was coupled with a hard clam energetics and growth model and a watershed loading model. The linked models facilitate ecosystem-based management and enable regional spatial planning in a full ecosystem context, through coupled simulations of aquaculture activities, land use changes, nutrient loading, climate change, and estuarine response. Modeled output for hard clam growth and water column chlorophyll-o, dissolved oxygen, and dissolved inorganic nitrogen and phosphorous reproduced in situ data. Simulations with increasing clam numbers up to 500 million resulted in diminishing returns in terms of reduced growth rates, increased time to harvestable size, and reduced harvestable biomass, confirming observations by Cherrystone farmers of reduced clam growth rates above 200 million cultured clams. Modeled hard clam production capacity decreased in the absence of benthic microalgal resuspension (6%) and without the input of external production from the Chesapeake Bay (41%), and increased in simulations with increased water column chlorophyll-o (11%) and the removal of predator exclusion nets (13%). Simulations to optimize siting indicated that the highest hard clam growth rates occurred up-estuary. Model simulations with changes in land use and climate indicated that clam growth is most sensitive to increasing temperature, with rates decreasing by 37% when temperatures were increased by 5°C, while changes in land use, sea level rise and salinity did not result in large changes in hard clam production. At the system scale hard clam aquaculture was predicted to account for 14% of total nitrogen inputs to the water column between sediment recycling of clam feces (13%) and direct clam excretion (1%). The Cherrystone ecosystem model fills a critical gap on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and in similar coastal systems, providing resource managers with the most current available science in a decision-support framework to promote effective regional spatial planning and sustainability of hard clam operations and the surrounding coastal ecosystems.



© The Author