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Life as a Knauss Fellow: In and Out of the Office

August 30, 2012
NOAA volunteers fill reef ball molds with concrete at a Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Oyster Restoration Work Day. ©Emily Susko

NOAA volunteers fill reef ball molds with concrete at a Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Oyster Restoration Work Day. ©Emily Susko

By Emily Susko

From the Office
As a Knauss Fellow in the National Sea Grant Office (NSGO), one of my primary duties is as coordinator for the Sustainable Coastal Development and the Hazard Resilient Coastal Communities Focus Areas. That means that I develop conferences, discussions, and seminars relating to coastal community issues and that I support NSGO’s teams of expert advisors on those topics. I also recently developed a new newsletter for the sustainable coastal community development  network. The first issue of the Sustainable Coastal Community Development Bulletin focuses on maritime heritage tourism.

Aside from this work, I have gotten to participate in a wide range of interesting events and activities. Every other week, I meet with a group at the Office of Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) in the National Ocean Service to develop a website ( for the Coastal Smart Growth resources. In mid-March, I got to review nearly 30 applications as a reviewer for the Coastal Management Fellowship.

Into the Field
I was excited to perform hands-on conservation work this summer at an Oyster Restoration Work Day hosted by NOAA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  I signed up as soon as I could to spend a weekday outside.

Emily Susko (left) and Kristen Jabanoski, Knauss Fellow from North Carolina Sea Grant, work on a reef ball mold.

The CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center is located in Shady Side, MD, a tiny, sleepy town on one of the Chesapeake’s many coves that seems largely untouched by the last several decades. Driving into town that morning, we passed old, modest houses on quiet streets, heading out to one finger of the peninsula, where the Oyster Restoration Center occupies a plain-looking warehouse and dock.

By the time we arrived, the CBF staff had already roped off a section of the gravel parking lot, lining it with plywood platforms and surrounding these with a strange assortment of items—stacks of curved plastic triangles, buckets of screws and metal wedges, and piles of children’s bouncy balls and footballs. As soon as all the volunteers had assembled, Peyton Robertson, the director of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, welcomed us to the day’s event.

Karl Willey, the manager of the Restoration Center, explained that our mission for the morning was to form teams and, employing these objects according to a rather ingenious design, build 40 molds for pouring concrete artificial reef balls. First, the triangular plastic pieces were screwed and wedged together, and this tripartite mold was bolted onto the plywood. A large vinyl buoy was inflated inside the structure to create a hollow center, and smaller buoys, along with the bouncy balls, were wedged in between the large buoy and the walls to create interconnected cavities. I teamed up with a fellow Fellow, Kristen Jabanoski from North Carolina Sea Grant, and together we shaped, hammered, lined (with dust and oyster shell pieces), shoved, and inflated until we’d created a satisfactory—if temporary—reef ball mold.

Once the NOAA volunteers finished assembling all 40 molds, we had about an hour to tour the facility before the cement truck showed up at noon.  Karl led us around back to the dock to give us an overview of CBF’s oyster restoration efforts. Standing in front of a large pile of oyster shells, he explained that the oyster populations remaining in the Chesapeake Bay number less than 1% of the historic abundance, and that native oyster shells such as these were in fact becoming a rare commodity.

The CBF collects these shells from restaurants and oystermen and uses them as substrate to grow baby oysters on site at their hatchery. Oyster larvae are initially free-swimming (and nearly microscopic), but after about two weeks they settle onto the old oyster shells and become sedentary. After a few months, oyster ‘spat’ are visible as little brown circles on the white shell background. To maximize survivability, the CBF grows the oysters for a couple years before transferring them to the bay.

After lunch, the concrete truck arrived, and volunteers stood by to guide the spout into the molds—and, hopefully, to alert the concrete pourer to stop in time to prevent messy overflows! I shied away from getting arm-deep in concrete, instead serving as a member of the back-up crew that hammered on the filled molds with rubber mallets to settle the wet concrete and release air bubbles.

Finished reef ball with attached oysters. ©Emily Susko

Finished reef ball with attached oysters. ©Emily Susko

The concrete started to harden fairly quickly—more quickly in patches of direct sunlight—but the reef balls wouldn’t really be ready until the next day, when a different crew of volunteers would undo our morning’s labor by disassembling the mold pieces and deflating the buoys. Fortunately, the Restoration Center had a few finished examples lying around to give us a preview of our work:

This was my first trip to the Chesapeake Bay, and my first learning experience with oysters. It was a great chance to spend the day learning about such an important resource in the field. Since I was there with a volunteer group from NOAA, it seemed everyone around me—not just the staff at the Restoration Center—were fonts of oyster knowledge! I also learned a lot about restoration work in general.  It was particularly interesting to appreciate that these methods have been developed by the CBF through two decades of restoration efforts, and the process of learning how to restore a bay is ongoing.

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