Sanctuary for waterway ‘vacuum cleaners’

Published 10:01 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2019

More than a dozen volunteers, including seven students representing all three Suffolk public high schools and their families, participated in the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance’s Oyster Reef Sanctuary Project that was held on June 22.

The project was led by Karla Smith and Cindi Pinell of NRPA’s Environmental Education Committee, according to a release prepared by NRPA President and Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Taraski.

Two oyster sanctuary intertidal reefs were established five years ago, on private grounds at two different Chuckatuck Creek locations. More than 100,000 baby oysters have grown over this period of time in Taylor Floats, according to the release, and were then deposited on the sanctuary reefs.

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“An oyster sanctuary is an area where the harvest of oysters is prohibited,” the release states. “These areas are protected to encourage the growth of large, healthy oyster populations that benefit the environmental ecosystem.”

Oysters are a crucial component of the living ecosystem found in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. They’re considered the “vacuum cleaners” of these waterways, according to the release, with one adult oyster filtering 50 gallons of water per day.

They remove organic and inorganic particles, resulting in cleaner water.

“Throughout the project, I learned about how oysters reproduce and filter our waterways,” rising Nansemond River High School junior Connor Whitworth stated in the release. “They ultimately end up benefiting other organisms present in the water.”

NRPA created an oyster garden and constructed a series of Taylor Floats through grant funding, and each year purchases spat — baby oysters — and bags them in net bags to place them in the Taylor Floats.

Volunteers remove accumulated silt and sediment from the oysters twice a year to prevent them from suffocating, and also to sort the oysters into larger net bags and cubes. The oysters are placed on the reef when they reach an adult size of three inches, according to the release.

This project also serves as a hands-on, outdoor classroom in which citizens learn about oysters and marine life. It’s also an opportunity for families and individuals to help their waterways.

Furthermore, the baby oysters are brought into the classroom by NRPA as part of its “Nansemond Watershed Initiative: Connecting the Classroom with the Environment Program,” which educates 1,500 students annually.

“I enjoyed the experience and learning why it is so important,” Rowena Moore stated in the release. She and her two children, Kendi and Gary, participated in the June project. Her daughter is also the vice president of the King’s Fork High School Ecology Club. “She participated in the oyster project last year and truly loved restoring the oyster beds.”