My CBF colleagues pulled another tool out of the native oyster restoration toolbox this week: reef balls.
What in the world is a reef ball, you ask? A picture is worth a thousands words, so take a look.
Early in their lives, microscopic baby oysters float for a time in Bay waters, seeking an oyster shell upon which to settle, attach, and grow for the rest of their lives. Short of an oyster shell – and sadly today’s Chesapeake Bay is very short of oyster shells -- the little oysters will settle upon concrete surfaces like those of a reef ball. There they will attach themselves, hopefully to grow to maturity, filter Bay water, and reproduce lots of babies to help repopulate the Bay with oysters.
And like natural oyster reefs that once rose from the bottoms of salt-water rivers throughout the Tidewater region, the reef balls elevate the young oysters off the bottom, clear of the mud and silt that can smother them. The many nooks and crannies of reef balls also provide wonderful homes for fish and scores of other Bay critters. In short, reef balls can produce a healthy, thriving oyster reef community much faster than Mother Nature can. At least that’s the idea.
This week, Tommy Leggett, CBF’s Virginia oyster restoration and fisheries scientist, and able assistants Jackie Harmon and Laura Engelund led some 70 volunteers in a three-day effort to make 50 reef balls at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center on the campus of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at Gloucester Point, Va. Assisting on day one were CBF oyster restoration experts from Maryland, where experiments with reef balls have proven so successful the CBF oyster team decided to bring the reef ball project to Virginia waters.
As these photos from Wednesday illustrate, making a reef ball is no piece of cake. Volunteers working in small groups first assembled and prepped the fiberglass molds, inserting inflatable toy balls to ensure each reef ball had the needed hollowness and holes. Then when the cement truck arrived, a bevy of activity resembling controlled chaos ensued. Volunteers gathered around each mold, helped pour the concrete, tamped down the mixture, rapped the sides of the molds with mallets to ensure proper settlement, and smoothed and finished the top edges.
The next day’s volunteers removed the fiberglass molding to reveal the finished reef balls, 50 in all over the three days. Leggett intends to make a total of 200 in the coming months as part of a grant project to restore oysters in the Lafayette and Piankatank rivers. Partners include CBF, NOAA, Restore America’s Estuaries, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Elizabeth River Project, The Nature Conservancy, VIMS, and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. And, of course, all the CBF volunteers who helped. We couldn't do it without them.
Before deployment into the rivers, some of the reef balls will be placed in large tanks and flooded with water full of baby oysters to jumpstart the process of oyster settlement upon them. Other reef balls will be placed directly into the rivers this summer.
Leggett has high hopes the reef balls will be as successful in Virginia as in Maryland, but as with other experiments, he won’t know until they’re tried.
“Oyster restoration is a not a perfect science by any means,” he says. “We’ve had some successes, we’ve had some setbacks, and we’ll have some more of both. But progress is undeniable. There are more oysters in the Bay today than there were five years ago, especially in smaller rivers like the Lynnhaven, where reef building and reef stocking have been done at the appropriate scale. I firmly believe we’ll see a major recovery of oysters in the Bay, maybe in my lifetime.”
I wouldn’t bet against Tommy Leggett.
To find out more about CBF's oyster restoration efforts in Virginia and Maryland -- and how you can get involved -- visit our website.
By Chuck Epes