Artificial reef is set off Tilghman Island

Submitted to The Dorchester Banner The hollow concrete balls were carefully placed in two days during the previous month, doubling the size of an artificial reef.

Submitted to The Dorchester Banner
The hollow concrete balls were carefully placed in two days during the previous month, doubling the size of an artificial reef.

TILGHMAN ISLAND — The Coastal Conservation Association Maryland (CCA Maryland) added 170 concrete reef balls to a new artificial oyster reef off Tilghman Island over the past month, doubling the size of the reef. The statewide angler organization is building the reef as part of its efforts to improve the Bay for the benefit of the general public.

The Cambridge area will benefit from these and similar efforts. The two largest artificial reefs in the state made from concrete reef balls with oyster “spat” attached are at the mouth of the Choptank River.

With the 170 balls added recently, the Tilghman Island site now has nearly 400 reef balls. A reef created several years ago off Cook’s Point has about 1,300 reef balls submerged on the bottom.

Building blocks
Oyster reefs are the building blocks of the Chesapeake ecosystem. Tiny marine life is attracted to the reefs, and in turn so are small fish, then larger fish such as rockfish, so named because they like to feed around oyster reefs.

For over a century, reefs have been knocked down by over harvest or assaulted by pollution and disease, and with them has gone the improved water quality and important bio-diversity that reefs provide.

The volunteers from CCA Maryland who helped deploy reef balls to the Tilghman site said the project will not only provide more opportunities for anglers; it will give a boost to the Bay’s ecosystem which already is showing signs of significant improvement.

Jonathan Bland, a volunteer from the Patuxent chapter of the organization, said every angler knows the best place to fish in the Bay is where structures such as natural or man-made oyster reefs exist. He said he’ll return to the Tilghman site in two or three years once the baby oysters growing on the reef balls have matured.

The advantage of building artificial oyster reefs with reef balls is the specially designed concrete structures help oysters get off the bottom and avoid possible silting over of the reef, said Mike Malpezzi, artificial reef coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He said the nooks and crannies of the hollow balls also provide extra surface area for oysters to grow.

Children assisted
School children from many different counties did most of the construction of the reef balls. CCA Maryand Executive Director David Sikorski said education is as important to the project as increasing fishing opportunities. It helps students learn about oysters and the Bay, even though many participants don’t live near the water, or go fishing.

Building reef balls also provides the children with practical and hands-on experiences, such as how to properly mix concrete. The students work in teams to learn collaboration, and they are taught to leave the build area as clean as they found it, “a lesson that is also a tenant of conservationists and sportsmen and women throughout the country,” Sikorski said.

The Mid-Shore Fishing club, formerly MSSA Dorchester, the CCA Northern Virginia Chapter, and staff from Bass Pro Shops in Hanover also built some of the reef balls that were deployed.

Careful placement
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) played an important role in the Tilghman Island project. Some of its molds were used to build the reef balls.

Baby oysters or spat were set on the balls at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side. Also, the balls were deployed on the reef by the organization’s special oyster boat, the Patricia Campbell. CBF also was the lead organization in the construction of the Cook’s Point artificial reef project.

The deployment at the Tilghman Island site started early in the morning on two separate days, as volunteers and the CBF crew of the boat loaded the heavy balls using an onboard crane at CBF’s Shady Side facility.

The Patricia Campbell then steamed across the Bay to Tilghman. The balls carefully were lifted over the side with the crane about 1.7 miles offshore. Wearing hard hats and steel-toed boots, the volunteers and crew worked for hours, one day in rainy conditions and one day when temperatures approached 90 degrees.

Malpezzi from DNR was on board to make sure the balls were placed in precisely the right location as the project permit stipulates. He said the bottom in the area is sandy. The balls will give the reef vertical structure, or three dimensions, which is critical to a healthy oyster reef.

Population is expected
Hundreds of thousands of oysters are expected to grow on the balls. Both CCAMD and CBF are members of a large coalition called the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance which aims to add 10 billion oysters to the Bay by 2025.

The alliance also includes oyster farmers on the Eastern Shore such as Hoopers Island Oyster Co. and Harris Creek Oyster Co.,
Malpezzi said a rich community of sea life will grow on the balls: benthic organisms, sea grapes, barnacles, mussels, and more. The reef also ultimately will filter millions of gallons of water a day, in addition to attracting fish.

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