You may have read about John Shell, the Junior at St. Paul’s High School in Mobile who came up with a brilliant yet aggressive undertaking to earn his Eagle Scout badge. It’s a story that inspires, especially if you love and cherish the waters surrounding the Scenic 98 Coastal area.
John’s project was to install a complete filtering system with a clean-water by-product that would result in increasing the oyster, crab and fish population from Dauphin Island to Bayou la Batre and on both sides of Mobile Bay, includingthe mouths of the lower rivers that feed it, over to the Intercoastal Waterway to Wolf Bay, Perdido Bay, Ono Island, and the Little Lagoon far as Innerarity Point, Florida. Whew… We may even see the return of grass beds along the shores that serve as nurseries for marine habitats.
No small task indeed, but actually simple and proven effective. John himself is wrapping up his efforts and is preparing to pass the torch on to the next organization. With Honors courses and AP projects, John’s time and attention are in high demand. John’s father, Jeb Shell, CFO at Hargrove Engineers & Constructors in Mobile, doesn’t want to interfere with his son’s Eagle Scout project, but sees its potential and wants to see it live on.
As you may have guessed, John’s Eagle Reef Project is massive yet doable. A series of small reef cages are constructed and then placed underneath wharves and piers throughout the coastal waters. The reefs are not John’s invention, but the process of researching and determining how to execute this project was all John, maybe with a little help from marine biologists and others.
After seeking the expertise of Sean Powers, Ph.D., a specialist in Fisheries Ecology Research at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, John reached out to David Wolffe who owns and operates Ocean Habitat Inc. in Florida, south of Gainesville. His company builds, distributes, and installs the reefs they manufacture. He and his company installed several of these reefs in murky waters of inlets and canals in Florida. The results were amazing! After a short time, the reefs attracted bivalves (oysters and barnacles), and the waters cleared and attracted small fish which then attracted game fish (you know how this works).
Back to John, he devised a plan to help individuals purchase reefs and install them on wharves, piers, and docks throughout the Scenic 98 Coastal area. His goal was to put 100 in place before his project would end. So far, he has “sold” 200 reefs. The reefs themselves take ten minutes to install and, because they are raised and not sitting on the bottom, have a much better chance of avoiding Oyster Drills, those pesky invaders that can destroy entire oyster beds. See how John’s Eagle Reef Project works here.
Here are the fun facts: An adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day and, once mature, each one of John’s reefs filters 11 million gallons annually. Sediment and nitrogen cause problems in bay waters. Oysters filter these pollutants either by consuming them or shaping them into small packets, which are deposited on the bottom where they are not harmful. Watch this filtering demonstration here. Incredible!
John consulted with Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Colonel Scott Bannon, Marine Resources Division Director, who will be the beneficiaries of John’s Eagle Reef Project once completed.
The goal is to pick up the project when John completes his goal of installing 200 reefs. Supply chain issues have slowed the manufacture of the reefs and there is currently a waiting list for installing reefs on individual piers. Now that the manufacturing issue seems to be resolved, John hopes to complete his project by the end of October.
Although oysters will find the reefs naturally, the reefs can be “baited” with 4 to 6 mature oysters to get the reefs energized to begin filtering the water. A mature oyster reproduces by releasing eggs and sperm into the water. Females can produce about 100 million eggs each year. They spawn tiny larvae that freely navigate the water column until they find an appropriate habitat with a structure to settle on. The larvae permanently attach to a surface they are known as spat. Once established, the process repeats itself.
What’s next? John hopes that businesses, non-profits, and individuals will step up to fund the completion of 800 more reefs throughout the coastal area. To encourage community-wide participation, they are considering selling plaques at waterfront restaurants to fund reef installation in honor of the memory of loved ones who appreciated the natural resources they cherished during their life along the coast.
John says, “If a seventeen-year-old kid can raise $60,000 in three months for this effort, imagine what the business and waterfront communities can do if they get engaged!” According to the biologist that developed the reefs, 1,000 reefs will filter 11 billion gallons of water and facilitate 500,000 new fish and crabs annually.
When purchased in bulk, each reef costs $300 to $400 and is easily installed. Reefs weigh about 200 pounds once loaded with oysters and are designed to float above the sea floor between four pilings. John has stopped filling reef requests for the time being and hopes to reach his goal of 200 reefs as soon as he receives them from Ocean Habitat Inc.
Those interested in getting a reef should still go to the website and get on the waiting list or indicate their willingness to donate towards the project. Those orders will be filled once corporate and community fundraising begins. The first reef was just installed in Daphne, and you will see up to 30 installed along Scenic 98 by the end of October. His story and initiative are inspiring to say the least. He has a website, The Eagle Reef Project, that will keep you up to date.
As the next phase of the project develops, Scenic 98 Coastal will keep you informed. We encourage everyone through their time, talent, and resources to see John’s vision become reality. Our coastal waters will thank you!