Building Castles Underwater

Oyster restoration creates habitat and protects shores at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

By Daniel White on July 20, 2016

Two sites at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge that suffered serious damage from Hurricane Sandy are getting a natural boost to make their shorelines more resilient against rising seas and future storms. Volunteers helped staff from the refuge and The Nature Conservancy construct two-thirds of a mile of new oyster castles.

When I arrived at the refuge in May to take part in one of the workdays, all hopes of a sunny day at the beach soon washed away. Pelting rain, gusty wind and boot-sucking mud greeted us along the shore of Assateague Bay. Ah, nature.

Despite the elements, staff and volunteers alike attacked the task at hand with gusto. Read on to learn more about the benefits of oyster castles and to see photos from our day in the bay. 

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Daniel White)

Like Child's Play 

Bo Lusk, project leader and coastal scientist at our Virginia Coast Reserve, kicked off the day with a brief orientation on oyster castles. Bo then demonstrated how to assemble the concrete castle blocks into an array. The process looks a lot like playing with Lego bricks — if plastic Lego pieces weighed 30 pounds!

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Daniel White)

Braving the Elements

Among the dozens of volunteers who helped out, none were more impressive than the intrepid family who forged ahead during our rainy day.

Between the two restoration sites, which also included Tom’s Cove paralleling the Beach Road, volunteers and staff would ultimately deploy nearly 14,000 castles.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Daniel White)
Unpacking a Punch

Each seven-foot-long castle array provides a foundation on which juvenile oysters can attach and build. Living oyster reefs can grow quickly enough to outpace rising seas and reduce the punching power of waves. Oysters also help clean surrounding waters, while their reefs provide valuable habitat for fish and crabs.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Daniel White)

With a Little Help from Our Friends

Assembling the castles looked much easier when Bo was demonstrating on semi-dry land. Working by feel underwater definitely ups the challenge, but Jenny Miller (pictured above) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seems to be having fun all the same.

Other partners providing technical, financial or other support for the restoration include the National Park Service (which manages adjacent Assateague National Seashore), U.S. Department of the Interior, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Daniel White)

The Sun Also Rises

Just as our work for the day winds down, the clouds begin to break, and the sun peeks through. Assateague Bay's shimmering waters paint a stunningly gorgeous backdrop as we wade back toward the Service Road and solid ground. 

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Daniel White)

Misty's Descendants

The sunshine, however brief, turns out to be a good omen. During our drive back to refuge headquarters, the famed Chincoteague wild ponies make a cameo appearance, grazing along the other side of a marsh.

Made famous by Marguerite Henry’s classic Misty of Chincoteague and its sequels, the ponies draw thousands of tourists to the island’s annual summer Pony Swim. Many more people flock here throughout the year to enjoy Chincoteague’s natural beauty, including scenic beaches and a dizzying diversity of birds.

Go Deep

Explore our Virginia initiatives to enhance coastal resilience. And if you're a conservation practitioner or community leader confronting challenges from climate change, visit our coastal resilience networking site

Plan your visit to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

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Completed castles: “Each seven-foot-long castle array provides a foundation on which juvenile oysters can attach and build.” Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Bo Lusk)

Categories: Oceans and Coasts, Oyster Restoration, Climate Change, Coastal Resilience

Daniel White is a senior writer for the Conservancy based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and editor of the Passport to Nature blog.

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