Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
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Lexington, VA 24450

Protecting the Water and a Way of Life

Engineers without Borders Works on Reef Restoration at South Carolina Shore

Members of the VMI chapter of Engineers without Borders create a reef from oyster shells -- Photo courtesy of Capt. Ned Riester.

LEXINGTON, Va., April 10, 2014 -- Each year, right about this time, thousands of college students flock to the coast for spring break. Most of them aren’t carrying bags of oyster shells.

But members of the VMI chapter of Engineers Without Borders carried plenty when they spent their spring break in South Carolina working with residents of a local fishing village to help preserve their way of life.

“The kids who are members of Engineers Without Borders came up with the idea,” said Capt. John “Ned” Reister ’78, the VMI faculty member who accompanied the cadets to McClellanville, S.C., a little town about 30 miles from Charleston. “They work hard.”

The work on this EWB trip consisted of packing, hauling, and planting bags of recycled oyster shells. The VMI contingent filled hundreds of bags, each weighing between 30 and 40 pounds, every day and hauled them to the shoreline, where they would line the bags in the surf to create a makeshift reef. By the end of the eight-day trip, the group had packed and placed more than 1,000 bags of oyster shells.

 The idea is to create an environment where more oysters, as well as other sea life, can grow and thrive. Each bag of empty shells will eventually become home to new oysters, as well as other species of ocean-going creatures.

  “Eighty-five percent of the world’s oyster population has disappeared,” noted Riester, whose group worked with the Sewee to Santee Community Development Corp. while in South Carolina. “You lose anything, and it just impacts everything. Down there, they are doing very well, really turned it around."

 Projects like this one are a major reason for that. The residents of McClellanville have been replenishing their oyster beds for several years, and as a result they have been able to maintain their way of life. That is something that was not lost on the cadets who were there helping out.

“The work we did in McClellanville was vital to both the local economy and environment,” said Jacob Stetson ’15. “It turns out that oysters are far more than shellfish we can eat. We learned that 85 percent of the local ocean life depends on the oyster at one point or another, either as food or as shelter for smaller creatures.”

 The little bivalve is more even than just a food source and a breeding ground. It also plays another vital role in the marine ecosystem.

 “After three years, each bag of shells will be able to host 50 oysters, and each oyster filters 2.5 gallons of water a day,” said Johnny Partin ’15, president of the VMI chapter of Engineers Without Borders and the Honor Court vice president. “After three years, our reef will be able to filter 2.5 million gallons of water a day.”

 The group did not spend all of its time playing in the oyster beds. While there, it was also recruited to do a little community service work, like cutting down trees and power washing local homes. The cadets found that just as rewarding.

 “The smaller jobs we did were important to me because it allowed me to see how meaningful a helping hand can be to people who truly need it,” said Cadet Vania Murcia ’17.

 And that is what Engineers Without Borders is all about.

 “The trip really captured the ‘Without Borders’ aspect of the club,” Stetson said. “You certainly don't have to be an engineer, just willing to try new things, meet new people, and visit new places, but most importantly willing to help others and make our world a better place.”

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-Chris Floyd