Hampton students build oyster reef at Langley AFB marina
Posted June 17
HAMPTON, Va. — Betsy McAllister has a voice that carries and enthusiasm to spare.
A science teacher specialist at Hampton City Schools, McAllister was at the marina at Langley Air Force Base Thursday morning with educators and two dozen fifth-graders from Booker Elementary who had arrived to build the school's first oyster reef on the Back River.
"Here come your babies!" McAllister shouted. "Here come your babies!"
Science teacher Karen Brace unlatched a mesh grow cage and eased a small pile of 2,000 juvenile oysters and assorted itty-bitty sea beasts onto the ground.
Students giggled, chirped, squealed and poked through the pile of bivalves and a few bristle worms and sea squirts — the kind of critters that thrive in oyster habitat.
"Look how big they've gotten!" McAllister exclaimed. "You know, you guys right now in the fifth grade are parents. Next year at this time, you'll be grandparents. You won't have wrinkles, but you'll be grandparents."
Nash Horton, a buoyant student with raspberry streaks in his hair, called out: "Is Timmy the oyster in there? Find Timmy the oyster and let me know. He's my child."
Student Elizabeth Athey said she named two oysters: Bob and Big Ed. She likes the idea of building a reef for them "because it's some way to help the environment, and it's a way to help clean the ocean out and get more oxygen to the fish."
The family affair flavor is on purpose. It's even part of the curriculum.
"The biggest thing we want to do for science is to build real-world connections to what they're learning," Brace said. "So they're not learning from a book. They're not going to learn science concepts from reading. If they see it and they can do it, then they can remember it and it makes sense to them."
It was Brace who came up with the idea of a reef at the base because her husband recently retired from the Air Force. Langley agreed, and the baby oysters were grown in a cage near the base's marina.
It's a Virginia learning standard that students understand the role of the Chesapeake Bay and its ecosystems, she said.
"And I think it also builds a sense of community for our students," Brace said. "So they actually know that they get to play an active role to making our world a better place."
They can do it, the educators explained, by building reefs. By educating others. By picking up trash from the grounds of the school so it doesn't pollute the two different watersheds it inhabits.
And when you're older, McAllister told them, you can educate others. And others can pass it on, too, like ripples in a pool.
"Think about this," McAllister urged. "You guys are raising oysters today, but you're not done. This is kind of the beginning."
Oysters are an iconic bay species, but they have a troubled history here. Their numbers have suffered for decades from pollution, overfishing and the introduction of two parasitic diseases, until today the population is a fraction of historic levels.
Oysters remain an important commercial fishery in Virginia, with an important role in the ecosystem. As filter-feeders, they clean the water. And their reefs provide habitat for other species.
The state along with academic and conservation groups have been working to rebuild the stock, in part by restoring reefs and building new ones.
Brace's students have been raising oysters she acquired from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which guided the school through much of the reef-building process.
CBF also provided the 75 bushels of recycled oyster shell students were spreading as a substrate for the young oysters to live on, just a few feet from shore. The shells came from CBF's restaurant shell recycling program, which Heather North manages.
"I thought this was the perfect opportunity to show the community really how just recycling the shells locally can impact the local environment," North said. "Because, literally, all of the (restaurant) shells that were recycled in that Newport News, Hampton area are now going right back in and being used for that reef. So it's really cool to have, like, a full story."
North helped make sure the permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission went smoothly. VMRC manages commercial fisheries and permitting in Virginia, although this reef is a sanctuary and therefore protected from harvest.
So, under overcast skies and a stiff river breeze, students took turns pulling on blue life vests and wading out into the water, where educators, a safety officer and others kept close tabs, easing youngsters over shoreline riprap. Red bushel baskets filled with shell were passed along relay-style, dumped out and returned empty.
The reef is one small part of a $360,000 NOAA grant the school system won three years ago, said Venicia Ferrell, the schools' science curriculum leader. At the time, she said, the award was one of the largest in the state. Part of it funded the Hampton Environmental Literacy Program, or HELP.
"So we're helping out the environment and helping kids, our students, become more environmentally literate," Ferrell said.
Students have learned about adaptations and habitat and food webs. Water quality is in there, too, and the roles of dissolved oxygen and the pH balance of the water.
When the new reef measuring about 25 feet by 1 foot was ready, it was time to layer on the oysters the fifth-graders have been measuring and studying once a month since last October.
"They were very small at first," said student Kameron Davenport. "Like, fingernail small. And now they're like two times your thumb."
Five students waded out with five gray plastic bins, leaned over and began delivering the young oysters, worms and squirts back to their watery new home. And for five years, Brace said, other fifth-graders will be doing the same.
The goal is for these bivalves to go forth and multiply into a healthy new oyster rock.
"To help the ocean get cleaner and help plants and other organisms in the ocean, help them get healthier," said student Keith Deloach.
Some students had begun to slip away, and McAllister shouted after them: "Hey, guys! You need to come say bye to your babies!"
And so began a shouted chorus of farewells from shore:
"Stay in school!"
"Really ... ?"
But one student offered perhaps the most pertinent parting wish of all:
"Have lots of babies!"