WILTON POINT—The Capt. Ellery, a Kellum Seafood workboat, floated idly along on a bend of the Piankatank River, which separates Middlesex and Gloucester counties here near the Chesapeake Bay.

Then came an eruption of action as crew members folded away doors along the vessel’s gunwales. In an earlier century, that might have been followed by broadsides from ship’s cannons.

But on this blue-sky summer morning, it was two water cannons that were quickly brought to bear.

Wielded by crewmen in oilskin aprons and white fishermen’s boots, the bright-red cannons mounted on pivots in the ship’s stern are used to slowly and methodically wash 100 tons of crushed granite out the ship’s doors into the water below.

The water-gunmen were laying down a rocky surface one Nature Conservancy official called “a solid substrate” to help create a new protected oyster reef that will hopefully clean the river’s water and seed oysters to neighboring commercial grounds.

The process is a fascinating ballet, as the specialized workboat cuts leisurely circles and figure eights over several acres of river bottom. All the while, the cannons wash the crushed rock overboard, their streams looking like a dirty creek in a storm. Over the course of a half hour, what starts as a rock pile the height of a large SUV has been slowly washed away, coating several acres of bottom with a layer of the rock.

“Oysters don’t grow well on bottom that is soft and silty,” said Andy Lacatell, Virginia Chesapeake Bay Director for The Nature Conservancy. His organization is partnering with a host of other groups to create new oyster reefs in the Piankatank and elsewhere in the region.

“While oyster shells have been the traditional material used as that substrate, the more easily obtained crushed granite is showing promise as an alternative,” he said.

Lacatell was joined by a host of the project’s partners for a media day on the Piankatank. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program were there. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also had a crew on site, using a small, remote submersible seeking images of the newly planted granite and a nearby reef planted in earlier years of the project.

The Nature Conservancy and VMRC are using the granite to build 15 acres of new oyster reefs in the lower Piankatank. That’s just upstream from 25 acres of reef built by the Army Corp of Engineers, VMRC, and The Nature Conservancy last year. The new reefs will contribute to the 428-acre restoration goal in the Piankatank, which is one of five Virginia tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay designated for restoration by 2025.

Lacatell spent a busy morning talking to reporters and project partners aboard the fishing boat Linda Carol, used on this day as a vantage point to watch the water cannons distribute the crushed rock.

He also supervised the dumping of a dozen or so bushels of oyster shells provided by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program. The shells had juvenile oyster “spat” on them, and were tossed over the stern of the boat.

Lacatell and other Nature Conservancy officials underscored the importance of returning self-seeding oyster reefs to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

“One oyster can filter and clean some 50 gallons of river water in a day,” noted Alex Novak, who noted that the Piankatank has historically been a river where oysters have grown well. Those oysters can then be used to seed rivers like the James and Rappahannock.

VMRC Commissioner Steven G. Bowen said that his agency, responsible for the health and safety of oysters and all other Virginia seafood, is glad to be part of a project which can help expand the resource and clean the waters.

Todd Janeski, director of the VCU Oyster Shell Recyling Program for the school’s Rice Rivers Center, noted that the growing recycles oysters served and eaten at participating Virginia restaurants, as well as oysters eaten in homes and then dropped at recycling centers in some spots.

He said the program got its start in 2013 with four restaurants, and is now up to 60, with drop-off centers in several areas of the state where oysters are readily available and eaten often.

I’m going to find out more about where oyster recycling is possible in our region, and about the Rice Rivers Center, and will share that info in a future column.

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Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

rhedelt@freelancestar.com