QA's students, reef balls support conservation

Queen Anne’s County students, as part of a joint environmental restoration project, let the finished reef balls dry after building them on Thursday, Oct. 24.

STEVENSVILLE — Growing up against the backdrop of the Chesapeake Bay comes with an unwritten responsibility to support the preservation of its abundant wildlife and infinite natural resources.

Students at Kent Island and Queen Anne’s County high schools have taken that responsibility by the horns with their participation in recent shoreline protection efforts, beginning with the in-class production of reef balls on Thursday, Oct. 24.

A reef ball is an artificial structure that replicates the natural appearance and function of a reef system in efforts to restore wildlife populations and habitats. The reef balls are made with marine-friendly concrete that is pH-compatible with marine environments.

The Queen Anne’s County Public Schools reef ball project is a joint effort among the school system, Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland, ShoreRivers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. FWS provided funding for the project through a grant it received.

Starting now and continuing through spring 2021, QACPS students will build 200 reef balls that, when finished, will be placed in the Chesapeake Bay outside the CBEC in Grasonville. Students at both schools will make 50 balls each year.

CBEC Assistant Director Vicki Paulas, who has headed all habitat restoration efforts during the past 16 years, said having students lend a helping hand in the fight for environmental rehabilitation is good for everyone involved.

“The high school kids love doing it,” Paulas said. “They’re excited, and they know it’s going to have a carry-over value, lasting however many years in the Bay.

“The oysters, crabs, and everything, are going to use these reef balls, and we’re using it for shoreline stabilization — so it’s actually a two for one,” she said, explaining the reef balls will be placed in front of existing marshlands, as well as 3 acres of soon-to-be-planted marshlands.

Paulas said CBEC has one of the county’s last remaining, intact stretches of marshlands. She said it’s important to protect them because they’re biodiverse, they improve water quality and they act like a sponge to prevent flooding.

But, equally as important, Paulas said the reef balls project is introducing the students to opportunities to continue working toward Bay environmental restoration after high school or college.

“It’s important to get the kids involved with internships and things like that,” she said. “(And) during this project, the kids have expressed to me they’re interested in helping me monitor when we get oysters out there, helping me do fishing surveys and planting new marshlands.

“There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities, and it looks good on the resume and when they go to college,” Paulas said.

QACPS instructional supervisor Michael Page said the school system plans to ensure the sustainability of this program so more students can participate through the years.

“We’re creating and then we’re monitoring over time, and that’s great for the kids because we get to see this real-world application, and they’re solving real-world problems right here in our backyard,” Page said.

He said most of the students participating in the project drive past CBEC on their way to school, so they’ll be able to see it and feel more connected to the environment around them.

“That’s really what we want,” Page said. “We want our kids to be environmentally literate and be able to make critical decisions about their surrounding habitats.”

QACPS Superintendent Dr. Andrea Kane said she was “so proud” of everything the students and participating organizations will accomplish.

Kane said, “Our students are learning by doing and protecting our natural resources due to the generous contributions of expertise, funding, time and energy of our partners.”

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