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Establishing Shellfish Habitats

Establishing Shellfish Habitats

A team of RI educators is preparing to test sculptural forms designed to attract marine life in the waters off India Point Park.

A team of RI educators plans to anchor sculptural forms made of concrete and pulverized shell to existing pilings along the water’s edge in Providence’s India Point Park.

After three years of extensive research and testing, a collaboration of ecologically minded landscape architects and scientists are steps away from installing sculptural forms into a small intertidal cove in Providence’s India Point Park. The project—formerly known as “Oystertecture”—is intended to educate the public about the importance of coastal restoration, encourage the settlement of marine organisms, stabilize the coastline and create conditions conducive to the reestablishment of critical salt marsh vegetation.

As Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Emily Vogler explained at a public meeting at India Point on Tuesday, oysters, clams and mussels filter out overabundant, human-introduced nutrients—such as nitrogen—from coastal waters. By improving the water quality of the state’s rapidly disappearing salt marshes, these organisms will improve the habitat for other marine species. In addition, the sculptural forms used could protect coastal edges from sea surges and impact the long-term health of local fish populations.

“Nutrients from waste-water treatment facilities, septic systems and agriculture lead to algae blooms that lower oxygen levels in the bay and create ‘dead zones’ where marine life dies,” Vogler notes. “In addition to providing a home for bivalves, the sculptural forms we’re planning to introduce may diffuse wave action—which tends to wash away shellfish larvae—and provide protected spaces for juvenile finfish during low tide.”

Once the team has secured a permit from the RI Coastal Resources Management Council, they plan to test three prototypes: the Hoop Skirt, the Beach Ball and Platters (named for their shapes). Each of the forms is constructed of concrete and pulverized shell, and each provides interior and exterior surfaces where bivalves can settle.

“We expect the different shapes to lead to different outcomes,” explains project partner Marta Gomez-Chiarri, a life sciences professor at the University of Rhode Island. “We did a lot of research on materials used by oyster farmers and scientists constructing artificial reefs and tested early prototypes in and out of the water.”

The forms the team developed are modular, flexible and easy to install and remove. The plan is to anchor three of each type to existing pilings along the water’s edge, where they’ll be visible at low tide and will hopefully prompt questions and discussion among park visitors. If the project is approved, a team of Providence schoolchildren will be assembled to build the forms and help monitor them, tracking bivalve populations and response to storm conditions over the course of three years.

“One of the elements that factored into the selection of this site,” Vogler explains, “is the role the project will play in educating the public about coastal restoration. It’s an incredible opportunity to discuss the relationship between urban ecology and public parks. We also plan to create an educational website, where we’ll post photos and share the data we collect.”

Simone Solondz

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