Shells and students: Building living reefs in southern New Jersey

What do thousands of southern New Jersey students, millions of young oysters and Gandy’s Beach have in common? They all benefit from Project PORTS — Promoting Oyster Restoration Through Schools — an education and community-based oyster restoration program, run out of Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory.

Whew...shell bags are heavy! 1st grade friends from the  Boys and Girls Club of Vineland, N.J., help carry a shell bag they built to load on the trailer.

Whew…shell bags are heavy! First grade friends from the Boys and Girls Club of Vineland, N.J., help carry a shell bag they built to load on the trailer. Credit: Project PORTS staff

Since 2007, Project PORTS has engaged school communities in a real world oyster restoration project, constructing a living oyster reef more than 5 acres in size near Gandy’s Beach in the upper Delaware Bay. To date, this reef located approximately one mile offshore, has provided habitat for more than 20 million oysters and counting, says Jenny Paterno, a recent Rutgers master’s program graduate, lab technician and project leader for Project PORTS.

In 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was awarded nearly $900,000 from Hurricane Sandy resilience funds through Department of the Interior towards a Gandy’s Beach shoreline protection project, which will improve the ability of the beach to withstand future storm surges and coastal erosion while helping to stabilize the decreasing oyster population. A portion of this work engages youth in oyster education and conservation at the Gandy’s Beach oyster reef breakwater project site.

Since this past March, the Service’s New Jersey Field Office has partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Project PORTS to involve several thousand local students who are building nearly 15,000 shell bags. The bags will be placed by hundreds of local volunteers this fall just off the shoreline at Gandy’s Beach in Downe Township.

Waves crashing at Gandy’s Beach before living shoreline construction. Hurricane Sandy flooded Delaware Bay and eroded salt marsh habitat.

Waves crashing at Gandy’s Beach before living shoreline construction. Hurricane Sandy flooded Delaware Bay and eroded salt marsh habitat. Credit: Katie Conrad/USFWS

Gandy’s Beach is gradually disappearing, losing an estimated 500 feet of shoreline since 1930, based on TNC field observations and historic aerial images. The communities of Money Island and Gandy’s Beach have experienced increased flooding during high tide events and major storms due to the reduction of surrounding salt marsh and beach buffers. This also reduces habitat for spawning horseshoe crabs and foraging habitat for migratory shorebirds such as the rufa red knot, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Katie Conrad, a fish and wildlife biologist at the Service’s New Jersey Field Office and project lead, says the work will construct nearshore oyster reef breakwaters along high energy shoreline, coir biolog living shoreline (logs of coconut fiber wrapped in mesh) on low energy sites, and hybrid living shoreline that uses both techniques in one location. “This will help stabilize approximately 3,000 feet of beach and tidal marsh shoreline, and ongoing monitoring will measure how well the oysters recruit on the different structures, so future restoration projects can benefit from what we have learned,” says Conrad.

The benefits of these living shorelines are three-fold: they help prevent erosion for wildlife and public recreational use; buffer coastal communities against impacts of future storms; and provide habitat for underwater species in the face of climate change and sea-level rise.

A student at West Avenue School proudly shows off a shell bag built for the Gandy's Beach oyster reef. Credit: Project PORTS staff

A student at West Avenue School  in Bridgeton, N.J. proudly shows off a shell bag built for the Gandy’s Beach oyster reef. Credit: Project PORTS staff

For the past year, project partner TNC has been collecting clam and oyster shells from restaurants during scheduled weekly pickups in Atlantic City, as well as a local surf clam processing plant in Millville, N.J., which delivered the shells to a management site maintained by TNC. The “cured” mollusks are then distributed to schools where students build shell bags. There is also a shell pile at the Haskin Lab in Port Norris, N.J., where they are stored or used for bagging activities with after-school groups such as scouts, homeschoolers and Habitat for Humanity teams.

Since mid-March, Project PORTS has engaged more than 650 students at several local southern New Jersey schools, teaching curious K-12 pupils about oyster anatomy, lifecycle and ecosystem benefits while building shell bags that will help prevent erosion and preserve wildlife habitat along the shoreline. Students work in teams of two or three and pull stretchy mesh bags over large diameter PVC tubes, then fill the tubes with shell to efficiently build bags.  “We were at a middle school just last week, and there were 6 classes of seventh graders who worked with us for an hour each, and built 722 bags in a day!” says Paterno.

“A class of 20, 4th graders can build 100 shell bags in a half an hour. Never underestimate the power of a fourth grader. They always impress us with their enthusiasm.” – Jenny Patnerno, lab technician and project leader for Project PORTS

4th grade students from D'Ippolito Elementary School lift their full shell tube up to complete their shell bag.

4th grade students from D’Ippolito Elementary School in Vineland, N.J. lift their tube up to complete their shell bag. Credit: Project PORTS staff

Each bag measures approximately 17-inches long by 10-inches wide and weighs around five to ten pounds per bag. So far, over 3,000 bags have been built by participating students and there are six more Project PORTS partner schools scheduled for activities through mid-June.

As a leader of classroom education and shell-building activities, Paterno recently completed her Master’s thesis on the diverse species which inhabit the Project PORTS Gandy’s Beach subtidal oyster reef, such as striped bass, weakfish, croakers and blue crab. She plans to continue her work with Rutgers and Project PORTS as a lab technician, explaining the reason she enjoys her role in the project. “I really like education and outreach while doing the science and research, so when I get to incorporate those elements together, it’s really rewarding,” says Paterno. “Some kids have never been to the bay even though they live 15 miles from it. I like to inspire kids to be outside and get interested in science — and realize that becoming a scientist is definitely within reach and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a crazy white-haired, lab-coat clad man with bubbling test tubes,” she says.

Jenny Paterno dissects and oyster with curious students at Assumption school. Credit: Cathryn Flammer/Assumption School

Paterno works with 7th grade and kindergarten students to explore the internal anatomy of an oyster at Assumption Regional Catholic School (ARCS) in Galloway, N.J. Credit: Cathryn Flammer/ARCS

Service partners along with an estimated 500 community volunteers will help construct the nearshore oyster reef breakwaters along the shoreline. The design will be broken into multiple sections and staggered, with each breakwater between 20 to 30-feet long, placing taller sections in front with the shorter breakwater behind it. “Oysters can live under both conditions in intertidal zones, sometimes covered by water, sometimes exposed to the air”, says Paterno.

Close up of partner-funded oyster castle at Gandy's Beach.

Close up of  oyster castle test site at Gandy’s Beach. Credit: Project PORTS staff

In addition to the oyster reef, man-made oyster castles will be placed along the shoreline as part of the restoration project. “The use of oyster castles, which are stackable concrete, blocks that make oyster reefs, will be used as we monitor oyster recruitment. With help from our partners, these living shorelines can help enhance oyster communities in the Delaware Bay,” says Conrad. Reef construction work is expected to start this August and both the reefs and oyster castles will be monitored for effectiveness by the Service and Rutgers staff after the project is completed.

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Project PORTS is an education and community-based oyster restoration program, which targets elementary and middle school communities in New Jersey’s Delaware Bay Shore region, promoting hands-on activities that teach scientific concepts and emphasize the importance of oysters as a resource to the region.

Read more about the Gandy’s Beach effort in an overview of the federally funded living shoreline projects led by the Service, making progress in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.

2 Comments on “Shells and students: Building living reefs in southern New Jersey

  1. What an amazing “hands on ” project for students to learn and save reefs from erosion and enable restoration at the same time.

  2. The kids at the Boys & Girls Club of Vineland really enjoyed helping with this project. They learned a lot about the Delaware Bay and hopefully will remember to preserve our most precious gems in this area — the Bay area and its inhabitants!

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