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Sheltering Shellfish in the City

Sheltering Shellfish in the City

RI Youth Conservation League volunteers help RISD grad students make habitats for species known to improve coastal water quality.

Angela Hang MArch 15 works with younger volunteers to make prototypes for an artificial reef.

Recent high school graduate Charlie Woolsey kneels on a giant tarp outside of RISD’s Bayard Ewing Building and cuts wire mesh with a pair of pliers. He pushes the mesh into a circular slab of wet concrete embedded with bits of crushed seashells, which are composed mostly of calcium carbonate—a hard surface that shellfish larvae prefer to settle on. The concrete disks are part of a small collection of artificial reefs designed at RISD to be deployed along the eastern shore of the cove at Providence’s India Point Park.

“These structures provide a viable habitat for oysters, mussels and other filter feeders that can help improve water quality off the coast of Rhode Island,” Woolsey explains. “Plus, they’ll act as stable, protective homes for juvenile fish and crabs.”

As a member of the Rhode Island Youth Conversation League, Woolsey is among the volunteers Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Emily Vogler and a small team of RISD graduate students applied to help them make multiples of three sculptural forms they’ve been developing: the Hoop Skirt, Oyster Platters and Beach Ball. On Tuesday, July 28, the young volunteers spent the day bringing the innovative designs to life. At low tide people visiting the park will be able to see the sculptural forms in the cove near a cluster of existing wooden pilings.

“Last summer more than 40 experimental tiles varying in texture and material were tested at the Shellfish Hatchery at Roger Williams University,” notes research assistant Dante Gamache MLA 16. “The concrete mix the volunteers used to make the prototypes had the best larvae settlement rate of the bunch. We’re curious to see how they fare in open salt water.”

The noble project is a multiyear, collaborative effort that began in 2012 as an EPSCoR-funded, interdisciplinary course led by Landscape Architecture Department Head Scheri Fultineer. Students enrolled in the studio collaborated with a team of scientists from neighboring colleges to design shellfish habitats that would both stabilize the coastline and offer the public a means of engaging with the project to better understand the importance of coastal restoration work. After securing a grant from the Rhode Island Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC), the group moved forward with its Providence-based reef project.

While two of the designs are spherical, the third consists of stacked concrete plates supported on a central spine. Each of the prototypes has removable modular concrete settlement plates that can be easily constructed offsite, which was a deliberate move to make it easy for students to get involved with fabrication efforts, Vogler explains. Once the team secures a three-year trial permit from the RI Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), it plans to install the artificial reef—hopefully by the end of the summer.

“This project provides an opportunity to discuss the role of habitat within the urban environment,” notes Vogler. “This is an extremely important and timely conversation. Urbanization and the development of coastal areas is increasing and we need to find ways to create habitat for species alongside human habitation.”

text by Abigail Crocker / photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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