A Concrete Solution for Disappearing Oyster Reefs?

Jan 25, 2017

According to the Nature Conservancy, 85% of the world’s native oyster reefs have disappeared — including most of those in the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists and environmentalists are working hard to rebuild some of those lost reefs, but one of the most promising solutions yet may be from a Charlottesville woman with no science degree, but a unique obsession. Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.

(Evelyn laughing)

Architect Evelyn Tickle has a rather odd passion. Visit her at her 19th century home in Charlottesville, and you’ll quickly get a sense for what it is. There’s the stunning concrete pool, a surprisingly comfy concrete lounge chair, and inside? Concrete floors, stairs, walls, countertops. You get the idea: Evelyn Tickle loves concrete.

EVELYN TICKLE: It has incredible design possibilities … beautiful material.

“Beautiful” may seem like a stretch if you only think of concrete as that rough gray stuff in the sidewalk under your feet, but Evelyn does far more interesting things with it. Fifteen years ago, she began designing and pouring sleek bathtubs, intricate wall panels, and other high-end furnishings for wealthy clients. She’s even had her concrete sculptures exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in Rome. But despite that success, Evelyn found herself yearning for more meaningful work … which she discovered in a sort of unlikely place.

EVELYN: I started looking at the oyster because I knew it made its own concrete. And I love oysters and I was like, oh my gosh, I did not realize that they were the number one endangered species — not only the oyster but the reefs and the shells.

Given how popular oysters are on Virginia menus, you might be surprised to learn that native oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay have fallen to less than 1% of their historic levels. This isn’t just bad news for oyster lovers and fishermen, but for the shorelines and fish that the oyster reefs once protected, and for the water itself. Did you know that one adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day? And …

EVELYN: The oyster shell, it’s very calcium rich and it also helps the ocean de-acidify. So it's like a big Tums in the water.

That’s one of the many reasons that organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Army Corp of Engineers are working hard to restore oyster reefs. The traditional method has been to collect or dig up discarded oyster shells and rebuild with those, but with the shells themselves now running low, Evelyn saw an opportunity.

EVELYN: I thought, wow, that's just really interesting and I think I can do this, so I made a concrete that very closely resembles the formula of an oyster shell.

Once Evelyn had that healthier and more sustainable concrete mix, she set about designing a form to pour it in. She wanted to mimic the way a natural oyster reef would grow — with all of its gaps and ridges.

EVELYN: I have a collection of oyster shells right here (shells clanking) …

Evelyn takes a handful of empty oyster shells and begins stacking them into a jagged pile.

EVELYN: The oyster likes to form on the shell because it has all of these great sort of nooks and crannies. And so they just keep amalgamating or growing off of each other into this strange, you know, beast of an oyster reef.

Using these Virginia oyster shells on her table as a model, Evelyn came up with what she calls a “Concrete Oyster Reef Restoration Tile” or CORRT for short. It’s about 8 inches high, and 12 inches square, with holes in the bottom. Rising up from the base is a sort of alien terrain of columns shaped like oyster stacks. Think stalagmites growing from a cave floor. The whole thing weighs about 18 pounds. Or as Evelyn says:

EVELYN: … light enough to carry, and heavy enough to stay put.

Now, Evelyn’s the first to point out that she’s a designer, not a scientist, but when it came time to field test her prototype, she figured she should test it against the alternative — a tile made with natural shells.

EVELYN: I forced myself to do it because I remember from my middle school science classes you need a control, right? And I was like, well, I know I'm going to lose.

Despite her pessimism, she placed both tiles in the Chesapeake Bay, and then she waited. And waited. A year later, she pulled them up. 

EVELYN: And the one with the natural shell was nice.

She could see where the baby oysters were growing on the old shells. And then she looked at her own tile.

EVELYN: It was just like a bouquet. It was like (laughing) it was like oh my god!

EMILY: Wait — tell me what you said — it was like a bouquet, what do you mean?

EVELYN: It was like a bouquet of flowers! There were like oysters covering almost every surface of it.

There weren’t just oysters, there were fish there as well. An entire mini ecosystem.

EVELYN: You know, at that point, I began to feel responsible like I’ve got this thing that I need to get out there and actually do some good with.

Now, in addition to teaching at James Madison University and leading the architectural design program there, Evelyn runs a start-up called Grow Oyster Reefs. The company is still in its early stages, but Evelyn is already working on reef restoration projects with the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center and the Nature Conservancy in Maine.

EVELYN: I think we can start making a huge difference, you know, in so many aspects: a healthier oyster, cleaner water, keep the shorelines intact, you know, there's a lot of work to be done.

Evelyn is obviously aiming high, but she also has her sights set on a more terrestrial goal …

EVELYN: I guess I have a dream of having my own concrete truck with “Grow Oyster Reefs” going around in a circle. Yeah. That would be really cool.