Coastal Restoration / Fisheries / Habitat restoration / National wildlife refuges / Partnerships / Wetlands

Building an oyster reef protects duck, fish habitat and their food

 

That might not look like much to you, but it's a tasty mean for diving ducks and striped bass. Credit: USFWS

That might not look like much to you, but it’s a tasty meal for diving ducks and striped bass. Credit: USFWS

David Sutherland, a biologist in the Chesapeake Bay Field Office, completes a shallow water dive and smiles as he holds up a conglomeration of rocks, oysters and mussels in his hands. It’s just a small piece of the 2-acre artificial reef created in Hail Cove just offshore of Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, Maryland.

“A few years ago, we laid down a 1,500-foot arc of stone and seeded it with the help of the Friends of Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge with 20 bushels of oysters grown by students at Washington College,” said Sutherland. “Now it’s covered with bent mussels and barnacles that waterfowl like lesser scaup, greater scaup, bufflehead and American black duck will feed on. A lot of waterfowl depend on these waters. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is one of the top five waterfowl habitats in Maryland.”

The reef was part of a larger project to restore and protect Hail Cove’s surrounding high-priority waterfowl habitat and submerged aquatic vegetation beds that are crucial to so many of Chesapeake Bay fish species. Without the historic oyster reefs that once provided natural shoreline protection, only a thin strip of land remained at the back of Hail Cove. A break in this critical land connection would jeopardize 350 acres of refuge wetlands.

Along with the arc of stone, partners created an 800-foot long living shoreline to protect the area:

  • Constructing low headland breakwater structures with sand at each end of the cove to provide additional shallow water at the entrance to the cove (the stone structures reduce wave energy and protect the restored wetland habitat from future erosion);
  • Adding sand along the eroded marsh bank to create habitat for diamondback terrapin nesting, migratory shorebird feeding, and
  • Planting marsh grass to further stabilize the shoreline.

Just recently in May 2014, Sutherland and Eric Zlokovitz with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative, watched as local granite was unloaded off a barge and placed in a patchwork design to create 11 oval reefs totaling 1 acre over a 2-acre footprint.

This local granite will create a patchwork of small reefs in shallow waters off of Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The design involved 11 reefs totaling about one acre of habitat in a two-acre area. The reef ecosystem will support worms, sponges, barnacles, oysters, mussels, and fish; including keystone species such as juvenile herring, striped bass, blue crabs, and American eels. Credit: USFWS

This local granite will create a patchwork of small reefs in shallow waters off of Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The design involved 11 reefs totaling about one acre of habitat in a two-acre area. The reef ecosystem will support worms, sponges, barnacles, oysters, mussels, and fish; including keystone species such as juvenile herring, striped bass, blue crabs, and American eels. Credit: USFWS

“This unique patchwork design will provide great shallow fishing opportunities for white perch and striped bass,” noted Zlokovitz. “The spaces between the reefs are like alleyways for fish to move and feed. These small channels also help to maintain natural water flow.”

This patchwork reef ecosystem is the last piece in the Hail Cove Living Shoreline Project. The reef ecosystem will support worms, sponges, barnacles, oysters, mussels, blue crabs and fish; provide food for foraging waterfowl; and protect aquatic vegetation growing between the reef and the living shoreline from erosive wave action generated by large storms.

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