For the past four years, the Hampton DPW has instituted programs that compensate for a rapidly decreasing oyster population. The most recent efforts have led to the discovery that porcelain could play a key role in saving the Bay's oysters. As a leading manufacturer of ceramic plumbing fixtures, TOTO produces unneeded "b-grade" porcelain that it agreed to reroute to Hampton, covering the loading and shipping expenses as well.
The DPW has been encouraging community volunteers to harvest their own oysters in order to relocate them to what are known as sanctuary reefs in other areas of the Bay. These initiatives have been executed in coordination with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMAC).
Last year, a decision was made to try and restore the oyster bed in the Hampton area of the Bay. Dr. Jim Wesson, head of the Conservation & Replenishment Dept. of the VMAC, explained, "In order for the oyster population to increase in numbers, there must be sufficient shell for the oyster larvae to attach to and grow, and ultimately reproduce." He said disease, pollution and over-harvesting are the root causes for the dying oysters. "Sadly, the oyster population in the Hampton, VA, region is at about 1% of what it was 40 years ago," he noted.
Wesson has been experimenting with the possibility of finding an alternative material for shell for the past few years. He has tested a number of materials, such as concrete and porcelain, with the goal of finding a viable substitute.
The results proved positive. In controlled situations, it was found that oysters would attach successfully to porcelain or vitreous china when it was properly cleaned and cut down.
According to Wesson, these efforts are very important because the role of oysters in the maintenance of the aquatic life of the Chesapeake Bay is significant. "Oysters are natural filters-feeders. They can filter up to 60 gallons of water a day," he said. "They improve water quality by feeding on the microscopic algae that have clouded up the Bay and prevent sunlight and oxygen from reaching important aquatic grasses." The decrease in oxygen has also resulted in the loss of fish habitat. Oyster reefs are also important because they provide a home for much of the Bay's small animal life. Finally, while it once flourished, oyster fishery is a nearly extinct business in the Hampton area of the Bay, and to restore this segment of the local economy also would be a welcome benefit.
Cheryl Copper, an environmental relations manager for the DPW, has been actively supporting the VMAC's efforts to collect the estimated 1,000 cubic sq. ft. of porcelain they need. As the official liaison between the VMAC and contributing organizations, she presented TOTO with the idea, and the company agreed to join in the project.
The porcelain parts are dumped into a landfill and volunteers recruited by Copper de-plumb and break it down, and then it is cleaned and used to rebuild the reef in the Hampton area.