When oysters finally return in great numbers to Virginia’s Rappahannock River, tip your hat to the teachers and students at Christchurch School for helping make it happen.
This 89-year-old Episcopal boarding school on the banks of the Rappahannock in Middlesex County has made oysters a big part of its education mission. The school is using oyster aquaculture and oyster restoration as tools for learning about ecology, economics, history, problem solving, sustainability, and making real for students the school’s motto, “Great journeys begin at the river.”
“At Christchurch School we recognize that the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica, is in trouble in the Chesapeake Bay, and we know that we can make a difference,” says Will Smiley, science teacher and sustainability coordinator at the school.
Since 2006, students have nurtured more than a half-million baby oysters and put them on oyster reefs adjacent to the school campus to help replenish the river’s oyster population and improve water quality. The school uses a technique called spat on shell, or remote setting. Students clean and bag old oyster shell, place them in a 1,700 gallon tank, then flood the shells with water teeming with microscopic oyster larvae. The larvae attach themselves to the shells, becoming oyster “spat,” and after two weeks are ready to be transferred to reefs in the river.
CBF uses a similar process for its oyster restoration programs. In fact, Tommy Leggett, CBF’s Virginia oyster restoration and fisheries scientist, was among several oyster scientists consulted by Christchurch when the school created its oyster program. Leggett continues to advise the school. Other key partners assisting the school are Rufus Ruark of Shores and Ruark Seafood in nearby Urbanna, Va., and Friends of the Rappahannock.
Smiley and his students also raise oysters using aquaculture, selling the tasty Rappahannock River bivalves as a school fundraiser. They purchase oyster seed from a local hatchery and nurture the tiny oysters in a devise called an upweller, which circulates water and food for the baby oysters until they are large enough to be put in mesh bags and placed in the Rappahannock.
As the oysters grow, students sort and clean them to maximize growth. Larger oysters are then placed in special cages that sit on the bottom of the river for protection. Christchurch leases 101 acres of nearby river bottom to use for its oyster farming. Students shepherd the growth of the oyster from a 2-millimeter seed to a harvestable adult (3 inches or larger), a process that takes about two years.
Christchurch’s “Seahorse Oysters,” named for the school’s mascot, are sold during the fall and winter. The school is a licensed shellfish shipper and can sell its oysters under regulations set by the Virginia Department of Health.
Another sustainability twist: Christchurch has built its oyster program around a “Cans for Oysters” recycling project. The school collects aluminum cans on campus and from the greater community and uses the redemption cash to buy oyster seed and equipment. The project encourages recycling by showing that the community's efforts directly impact the water quality at the school’s waterfront and the Chesapeake Bay, Smiley says.
“The oyster is not only a keystone species for the Chesapeake Bay; it serves as a keystone species for many communities,” he said. “At Christchurch, we hope to educate how the oyster builds ecological communities and how this fishery brings people together as well.
“The oyster program is just one part of the exciting changes happening at Christchurch School. With our new mission, curriculum, co-curriculars, schoolwide immersion trips, and community building, we aspire as a school to build conscientious problem-solvers for the future.”
If you’d like to give Christchurch a hand by collecting and donating aluminum cans to the school’s “Cans for Oysters” program, contact Smiley at email@example.com.
What do you think about integrating sustainability into school life as Christchurch School is doing? Does that enhance the educational experience?
By Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(All photos courtesy of Christchurch School)