Students Get Dirty for Oysters, Clean Water
By Gregory Tyler Loftis
OAK ISLAND -- Students at John T. Hoggard High School in Wilmington braved nasty weather last week to get their hands dirty and help create healthier waters and a more stable shoreline for this beach community in Brunswick County.
About 25 students arrived bright and early at Waterway Park on Wednesday, April 25, to continue bagging oyster shells and limestone marl, which will eventually be used to create an underwater reef spanning a portion of the island’s northern shore.
The reef is part of a project that will also include a restored salt marsh along the shoreline of the park. The reef and marsh will work as a living shoreline to slow down erosion while providing important habitat and water quality benefits. Living shorelines use more natural methods of erosion control than wooden or concrete bulkheads and stone rip-rap.
The project, initially started by the one of Oak Island’s advisory boards, has grown to involve the N.C. Coastal Federation and the town’s Public Works Department. John Michaux, Public Works manager for Oak Island, says that the federation has been a tremendous help in planning and coordinating the reef’s construction.
“Our goal,” says Michaux “is to create a coastline that is both healthy and aesthetic.”
Boat traffic across the Intracoastal Waterway currently creates wakes that slam into the shoreline, eroding the land. When the sill is put into place and the marsh restored, that wake will be buffered and hopefully cut down on the amount of erosion , Michaux said. This will allow several vacant lots across the coastline to be converted into public park space.
“What the reef will also do,” says Michaux, “is create a good habitat for new oyster beds.”
The sill works by layering bags of limestone marl or oyster shells on top of each other underwater, explained Ted Wilgis, one of the federation’s coastal educators who is overseeing the project for the non-profit conservation group.
“Baby oysters, called spat, like to settle on oyster shells,” he said. “So this new sill will encourage new populations of oysters. As it matures, the reef will become important habitat to many types of marine life.”
The marl and shells provide a home and protection for juvenile fish, crabs, small marine organisms and many important commercial and recreational species, Wilgis said. As the oyster reef develops, larger fish will tend to congregate around it, feeding on the smaller fish and marine life. Oyster reefs are important nurseries and feeding grounds that help support North Carolina’s billion dollar commercial and recreational fishing industries.
To complete a reef of this size, though, takes planning, and more importantly, lots of labor. That’s why oceanography and marine science students at Hoggard volunteered to help collect and bag the needed materials.
“This is a valuable experience for them,” says Aaron Soodek, an oceanography and marine science teacher at Hoggard. “The students had the option of joining in as part of a unit on shellfish.”
Soodek and his students travelled hours to work in the cold and the rain for the better part of Wednesday. Despite the disagreeable weather, however, students went about energetically bagging the oyster shells and marl. Soodek says that his students were more than eager to get outside and work in the field.
“I don’t mind the rain,” says Vassily Brown, a Hoggard student. “I think this is too important to let something like that (the weather) get in the way.”
Volunteers arrived by bus at10 a.m. and were handed raincoats and treated to lunch, courtesy of the federation. Wilgis, who coordinated the event, helped everyone split into groups – students were making bags, helping slide shells into collection tubes, tying the full bags up and stacking them with the rest. For several hours, students joked and laughed as they performed their duties.
“It’s repetitive,” says Will Garbo, another student, “but rewarding, and I’m out here making a difference.”
Students who volunteered for the project received valuable community service hours, a requirement of high school organizations such as the Beta Club.
The reef will also help preserve a unique feature of Oak Island’s coast, the marshlands that are being overrun by the constant boat wake – a problem made apparent when a passing military vessel created large waves that slammed into the shore’s bulkhead. Even the bulkheads in place do very little to protect against the effects of constant marine traffic. With the sill in place, there will be a buffer for the marshes. The federation and the town plan to replant some of the marshes later.
Along with all the benefits to the continued health of the shore, the volunteer effort also had a more subtle, yet arguably more important effect – teaching a younger generation about the importance of maintaining our ecosystems.
“It’s not just our responsibility,” says Garbo, “it’s everybody’s responsibility to do what they can for our environment.”
Organizations like the federation can provide information and tools, but the real effort comes from everybody doing their part to make a difference – no matter how big, or how small.