Anne Arundel County students gain concrete skills by building oyster reef balls

By:   Christina Jedra   Contact Reporter

Masonry students at the Center for Applied Technology North in Severn already have brick laying, concrete mixing and wall building on their resumes.

This week, they added reef ball construction.

Junior and senior students learned on Wednesday how to make concrete balls on which baby oysters can latch. The gumdrop-shaped structures with holes in their walls serve as a home base for the critters that filter contaminants in waterways.

“We wanted to connect the community and the bay,” said Morgan Kupfer, the Annapolis chapter president of the nonprofit Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, which led the project.

The reef balls will be deployed this fall near Tilghman Island in Talbot County.

Without them, oysters grow on other structures — often the shells of other oysters. But when oyster populations and their reefs decrease, it’s harder for baby oysters to grow, said Rick Elyar, president of the central region chapter of CCA Maryland.

“They won’t survive without something to stick to,” Elyar said.

By placing over 200 reef balls and over 250,000 oyster shells in the bay this fall and next year, program organizers hope to generate 3 million oysters by the end of 2017.

“Then we’ll just keep dumping (more reef balls and shells) on top of it, creating more and more reef,” Kupfer said.

The school-based program is part of the CCA’s Living Reef Action Campaign. Wednesday’s class, which has been conducted in schools in Carroll County, was the first of its kind in Anne Arundel County.

As the reef gets taller, the oysters will filter water from the bay’s floor to the water’s surface.

“You’re hitting different parts of the water column,” Kupfer said.

Elyar said the reef balls will benefit the bay ecosystem.

“This is going to be our version of a coral reef in the Chesapeake,” he said. “You’re going to have crabs and little bait fish. Then bait fish draw in bigger fish that draw in predator fish like the striped fish that a lot of us want to catch.”

Each reef ball, which weighs 250-300 pounds, is made of concrete. The concrete sits in the mold overnight and is allowed to cure for several weeks.

Eight students in dusty work boots learned on Wednesday how to construct and fill reef ball molds, covering inflated balloons inside the mold with concrete to create holes.

The Reef Ball Foundation, a Georgia-based nonprofit, designed the reef ball mold with holes to promote stability, withstand the force of currents and bring rich nutrients to life on the reef, Elyar said.

Jefferson Zavala, a 17-year-old junior in the masonry class, said he enjoyed using his skills to support the environment.

“It’s a unique thing that we get to help out the bay,” he said.

The initiative 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 CCA and students

“We haven’t had to pay a single penny,” Kupfer said.