Finding ways to improve the environment is important, and it can be easier when people work together.
Employees of Kelly Generator & Equipment Inc. teamed with Coastal Conservation Association Maryland’s Living Reef Action Campaign as part of a corporate sponsorship to build reef balls, or concrete, three-dimensional structures that support the growth of the oyster population.
“Making them Wednesday was a lot of fun,” said Michelle Brandenburg, a participant in the project and marketing coordinator for Owings-based KG&E. “It was really cool to see the finished product,” which weighed nearly 175 pounds and measured two feet tall and two feet wide.
Building these structures is a two-day process that begins with assembling the fiberglass mold, said David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland. Once these are hammered together, inflatable, rubber bladders are placed to create holes — which animals use to swim through — throughout the reef ball. Concrete, sand and gravel are then mixed together and shoveled into the mold and the balls are left to set overnight.
The mold and bladders are removed the following day, leaving behind a complete reef ball, which has the appearance of a “concrete wiffle ball,” Sikorski said.
Even though the reef balls are complete, they won’t be deployed for another four to six months minimum, sometimes not until the following year. It’s important for the concrete to sit and cure, Sikorski said, and reach a certain pH level so the balls don’t add “environmental harm.”
The Chesapeake Bay is polluted with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which ultimately create a poor habitat for animals, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Algal blooms spawn when these chemicals are present in excess and can harm or kill aquatic life by limiting sun exposure and oxygen. The blooms also create a breeding ground for parasites and can be harmful to other animals.
From 2016 to 2018, the grades for these chemicals, rated on a scale of 0-100 where 70-100 denotes an A, was low and the overall condition of the bay decreased, according to CBF’s State of the Bay reports. In 2014, the bay was given a rating of D-plus. It rose six points to a C-minus in 2016, but fell again in 2018 to a D-plus. The grade for nitrogen in 2016 was 17, and for Phosphorus, 28. In 2018, these numbers fell to 12 and 19, respectively, rating them as an F.
Oysters help improve water quality through filter feeding, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office. These mollusks help denitrify the waters by removing the nitrogen-containing algae, Sikorski said. Reef balls not only provide habitat for aquatic life but also help with oyster reproduction by giving young oysters, called spat, a structure to cling to and grow, Sikorski said. Additionally, the artificial reefs “break up the tidal flow” by oxygenating flowing waters — a needed chemical as algal blooms consume much oxygen when they die, per CBF.
LRAC, a flagship habitat, education and outreach program, typically works with schools to build the reef balls and has built almost 2,000 in the past four years, with about 400 being deployed west of Tilghman Island.
“It’s been a great group. They get a lot of good stuff done,” said John Kelly Jr., owner and president of KG&E, whose company has been working with CCA for seven to eight years.
The KG&E reef balls, Sikorski said, are set to be deployed in a shallow reef managed by the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association.
“This project is great, and of course it is great to work with students because they are our future, but to have companies like Kelly Generator step up to support the program and then also participate in it is, is the real vision of Living Reef Action Campaign,” Sikorski said.