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October 13, 2004

Potty Reef - or, 'Waiter, there's an oyster in my toilet!'

Oysterl

"That's correct, sir. Would you care for another dozen?"

The results of the experiment by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission are in, and things are looking good for toilet-bred oysters.

Artificial reefs made of smashed-up old toilets have proved to be ideal spawning beds for Virginia's newest product, the Potty-Reef oyster.

Hmm.

Doesn't have quite the ring of Belon or Kumamoto, does it?

Maybe it just takes a little getting used to.

Here's Scott Harper's story, which appeared in Sunday's Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot.
_____________________

A Commode is an OK Place for an Oyster Abode


Can oysters live and breed on toilets?

This unusual question was posed two years ago when state and local officials undertook experiments in which unwanted toilets, sinks and other porcelain products were smashed to bits and shaped into two artificial oyster reefs.

One such potty-reef was constructed in the Back River, near the runway at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton; the other – a single, small mound – was set in the Lafayette River in Norfolk.

Now the results are in: Yes, toilets are a good habitat.

In fact, they may last even longer in the wild than oyster shell.

That’s the material that Virginia has used for building dozens of reefs as part of its attempts to revive native oyster stocks in the lower Chesapeake Bay, devastated by decades of disease, pollution and lost natural reefs.

One catch, however.

Even when the porcelain goods are donated by contractors and developers, as they were in 2002, the cost of moving and placing these tons of white, shiny scraps into public waterways is more than for shell, said Jim Wesson, director of oyster restoration with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The same is true, he said, of other alternative reef-making substrates the state has tried in recent years, including chunks of coal ash and ground-up concrete.

Does this mean there’s no future for toilets in the Bay? For now, yes.

But if Virginia experiences a new shortage of oyster shells – under a state contract, millions of them are dug up from the bottom of the James River – porcelain potties again may rise, Wesson said.

"Really, anything that’s made into the size of a shell, is hard, and doesn’t float, oysters will find it and grow there just fine," he said.

Wesson and a team of scientists, aides and divers recently inspected the reefs, bringing mud-covered samples aboard a research boat and checking them for baby oysters and overall health.

On Wednesday , they arrived at the Lafayette River site, near the Norfolk International Terminals at the mouth of the Elizabeth River.

The water was muddy green, the air cool and breezy.

“And one more thing,” Wesson told his diving partner, Mark Sommer, just before they flopped into the river, “we’re looking for one or two humps made of toilet.”

"What?" Sommer shot back.

"Toilets," Wesson repeated.

"Yeah, and don’t be scared if you find one," added Vernon Rowe , an oyster-restoration aide, a smile spreading across his face.

Several minutes passed, bubbles the only sign that the divers were at work under the water.

Suddenly, Wesson emerged. "I found the toilets!" he declared.

Rowe cheered.

Wesson handed Rowe a bucket of oyster shells mixed with pieces of moss- and sponge-covered porcelain, a sloppy stew of green, orange and black.

Rowe dumped the contents onto a metal sorting board. Then he and Melissa Southworth , an oyster expert with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, began taking notes and recording findings.

There were plenty of baby oysters, or spat, taking root on the surface of the toilet shards – just as many as on the real shells, Wesson and Southworth said.

The results were the same a few days before, when the team surveyed the Back River reef, they said.

The city of Hampton spent nearly two years collecting and storing porcelain goods in anticipation of the project.

One environmental volunteer donated her grandmother’s china to the reef.

It quickly became a popular cause among local media, the city, and local companies wanting to do something positive and public for the environment.

Cheryl Copper, a spokeswoman for the Hampton Public Works Department and the organizer of the potty-reef project, said one Ohio company offered to send a trainload of flawed toilets to Virginia if more reefs were planned.

Local contractors, plumbers and waste handlers said they, too, would give away sinks, kitchen tops and toilets, she said in an e-mail last week.

"The program fired up imaginations," she added, "and I have no doubt that if the science proves the project worthwhile as an ongoing endeavor, Virginia and other states would have an unlimited supply of porcelain."

October 13, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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