Recycled reef provides a new home for oysters

NORFOLK

Workers put the final touches on a new and different oyster reef Thursday in the Lafayette River as environmentalists push to make the waterway safe again for swimming and fishing after decades of pollution.

The man-made reef is being built from recycled concrete, mostly because the usual reef material - old oyster shell - is hard to come by these days.

Standing on the half-acre site at low tide Thursday morning, at its home at the mouth of Knitting Mill Creek near the Colley Avenue Bridge, one project sponsor beamed as hired hands dropped buckets of concrete shards into place.

"The answer is not to put concrete all over the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and hope for the best," said Joe Rieger, a senior scientist with the Elizabeth River Project, a local environmental group. "It's to use concrete strategically, in the appropriate places. Like here."

It is the fourth artificial reef within the Lafayette, a scenic and largely residential branch of the Elizabeth River in west Norfolk, and the second erected in as many summers. But it's the only one made from concrete. A similarly sized reef was constructed last year from granite and oyster shells at the foot of the Granby Street Bridge.

Volunteers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental partner in the restoration effort, will spread thousands of baby oysters next week onto the new reef in hope of jump-starting a population boom, said Tommy Leggett, an oyster expert and former waterman who works for the foundation.

He said the group also will set down dozens of "reef balls," shaped like pottery but made from concrete, on the periphery of the new reef. Earlier this week, volunteers lowered 25 such balls into the Lafayette near the Virginia Zoo, as they have done at other locations in recent years, including off the Hermitage Museum and Gardens.

"We're creating habitat," Leggett said. "We know oysters do well here. It's just trying to give them an opportunity to thrive again."

The Lafayette - and the entire Elizabeth River - has been closed to oyster fishing since the 1920s because of excessive bacteria and other pollutants. Led by the Elizabeth River Project, an effort involving city, state and federal agencies is trying to make the Lafayette swimmable and fishable by 2014, with the waterway opened without restrictions for oyster harvesting in 2020.

The new reef cost about $130,000 - grant funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The reef was not even supposed to be built, but advocacy groups scrimped and saved on the Granby Street Bridge project last year so they would have enough this year to do the Knitting Mill Creek reef.

All reefs in the Lafayette are closed to harvesting and are considered sanctuaries. Poaching from them is illegal and potentially dangerous.

Already, the new reef is drawing its share of wildlife. On Thursday, herons and egrets were poking around in tide pools within the concrete shards, searching for fish. And fiddler crabs wandered down to the edge of the river, eyeing all the activity, hoping for a morsel.

It was a new day.

Scott Harper, 757-446-2340, scott.harper@pilotonline.com


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