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Persistence pays off for oyster reef pioneer

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Captain Bob Jensen looks out over the Rappahannock River, which has been at the heart of his work for more than two decades. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

More than 20 years ago Captain Bob Jensen had a vision to solve the problem of the diminishing resources of the Chesapeake Bay while also improving water quality.

Through his Rappahannock Preservation Society’s School of the Bay, Jensen used money from his own Navy pension to take more than 12,000 school children on Rappahannock River field trips aboard his deadrise workboat “Casey Jean” to see, firsthand, environmental issues.

In his decades of environmental work, Jensen knocked on a lot of doors. Some of them opened. When the Norris Bridge across the Rappahannock River was refurbished in 1993, it was Jensen who hatched and developed the idea of stacking concrete slabs that were being removed from the bridge to create underwater artificial reefs that would give oysters something on which to attach. It worked. There are now three of these artificial oyster reefs or “rocks” in the Rappahannock River—Christchurch Rock, Steamer Rock and Gilmore Rock. It was a win for the oysters and VDOT, which saved $8 million on the bridge that was completed well ahead of schedule, said Jensen. 

Jensen’s goal to help improve water quality hasn’t changed. In fact, it has become more solidified and refined. Jensen’s company, Reeftek, came up with an innovative oyster habitat he called “HORM,” which stands for Harvestable Oyster Reef Module.

An attack of the shingles disease affected Jensen’s vision and slowed his work, but like so many times before, he came back.

Living Reef Program
Enter the Oyster Company of Virginia. Its founder, Tolar Nolley, saw potential in Jensen’s design, and proposed the HORMs be used as a “Sanctuary Sentinel” for protecting oysters.

Oysters are filter feeders, and those in Sanctuary Sentinels will be left undisturbed, protected from poaching by concrete. Each oyster takes in 50 gallons of water each day and draws from it nutrients and sediment. “We have the native oyster that has demonstrated it’s a willing partner to make a major effort in cleaning up the bay,” said Jensen.

The Oyster Company of Virginia (OCVA) and Reeftek are launching their “Living Reef” program for public participation. Its 7.5-ton, five-layered concrete artificial reef modules are long-term growth structures for oysters and a habitat for marine life.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) has indicated it supports the concept. Permit applications will be submitted for final approval this winter. The OCVA program can help supplement the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects in the bay, noted Nolley.

Oysters for Life
OCVA also has developed an oyster cage package that helps watermen transition from “hunter gather” to aquaculture farmers. The cages, which sit on legs and off the bottom mud, protect the oyster “seeds” from such predators as cow-nose rays. “They also act as a mini reef,” Nolley explained. “This supports the acceleration of other fish and reef habitat. The annual harvesting and restocking of oyster seeds in these cages can last up to 10 years or more and are a real benefit to the health of the Bay.”

OCVA is offering its Oysters for Life through a unique private sector initiative inviting the general public throughout the nation to help underwrite cages, said Nolley. As a “thank-you,” supporters receive two dozen fresh Virginia oysters once a year for 10 years or for life. To date, there are almost 2,000 cages built, over a thousand supporters in 30 states, and a waiting list of watermen to help, said Nolley.

The Oysters for Life packages are currently available for $175 for 10 years and $275 for life.

OCVA, a sponsor for the Urbanna Oyster Festival waterfront, will have displays at the Urbanna Town Marina and at a booth in front of EVB on Virginia Street at the festival this Friday and Saturday.

Virginia Genesis Project
In a partnership soon to be announced, the OCVA is developing products using 15-million-year-old oyster shells from shell deposits in King William County as a substrate for creating its Virginia oysters.

One product being developed under OCVA’s “The Virginia Genesis Project” will use this 15-million-year-old “clutch” to represent the foundation for reviving Virginia’s oysters from their oldest known ancestors in the Commonwealth. “We are proud to be bringing this to the attention of the public as a way to educate young and old about the value and heritage of Virginia’s oyster,” said Nolley.

“To make a difference in the health of the Chesapeake Bay, it is going to require all the different projects and programs, from universities, nonprofits and companies like ours that drive a sustainable model without government funding,” said Nolley. “We want to showcase a sustainable platform that has modeled and measured results without adding to our nation’s debt.”

posted 10.30.2013

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