Reef balls make maiden deployment for oyster habitat

Christina Jedra
Contact Reportercjedra@capgaznews.com
A new home for oysters could mean better bay water quality.

Teamwork from Maryland environmentalists — from elementary schoolers to nonprofit workers — could result in new oyster habitat, and consequently cleaner water, for the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland Coastal Conservation Association members and partners dumped 70 concrete reef balls into the bay on Thursday, the first deployment for the organization's Living Reef Action Campaign.

Reef balls, gumdrop-shaped concrete structures with holes in their walls, are designed to be a foundation for oysters, which filter pollution from water. Each ball was covered with about 1,700 spat, or baby oysters. Oysters often grow on the shells of other oysters, but when populations and reefs decrease, it's harder for the next generation.

"The goal is first to improve water quality to filter out excess nutrients," said Rick Elyar, president of the central region chapter of CCA. "It also creates habitat for marine life and creates an amazing fishing spot for recreational watermen. There's so much life there."

This fall and next year, program organizers aim to place 200 reef balls and over 250,000 oyster shells on a two-acre section of a 84-acre site off the western edge of Tilghman Island.

As the reef gets taller, the oysters will filter water from the bay's floor to the water's surface, hitting different parts of the water column, organizers said. With the up to 300-pound structures, they hope to generate 3 million oysters by the end of 2017.

Students from fourth- through 12th-grade in Carroll and Anne Arundel counties spent class time this spring making the structures and assisting with the project.

Leslie Bollinger, a fourth-grade teacher at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster, rode along for the deployment on Thursday. Her students participated in an over month-long, multi-discipline project in which they were challenged to engineer a mechanism that would funnel oyster shells efficiently into mesh bags. The shells bagged by her students will eventually be released with spat over the reef balls.

"They were very invested in the whole thing," said Bollinger, who took photos of the reef ball deployment for her students. "It'll be cool to show them: This is what you did."

Elyar praised the organizations and people who volunteered supplies and time, including the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"I'm extremely proud how many partners came together to make this happen," he said. "It was inspiring."

The program is exploring possible expansions in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Elyar said.

"We're getting the agriculture community interested in marine conservation," he said.

Glenn Schneider, 64, is a lifelong fisherman on the bay. The Edgewater resident recalled more abundant but admittedly less sustainable days when watermen were permitted to take hundreds of fish home.

He isn't sure the bay can go back to when 3-foot trout were plentiful, but he said the reef ball project makes him optimistic.

"It's a change of paradigm," he said. "It means better water quality, which means more fish."

Schneider said some may call the project's potential effects a "drop in the bucket."

"But a number of drops in a bucket makes a full pail."

Working together for water quality

The Living Reef Action Campaign relies on donations from several organizations:

•Seeding and management of oyster shells collected from local restaurants by the Oyster Recovery Partnership

•Concrete from Lehigh Cement in Carroll County

•Concrete molds from the Stevenson University School of Science and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which also contributed seeding work

•Permits and funding assistance through the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative

•Money from BaySaver Technologies in Mount Airy

•Volunteers from the Coastal Conservation Association and students in Carroll and Anne Arundel counties

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that organizers with the Living Reef Action Campaign aim to place 200 reef balls and more than 250,000 oyster shells on an 84-acre site off the western edge of Tilghman Island this fall and next year. It should be noted the reef balls will cover only about two acres of that area. 

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