Oyster Growers Use 3D Printed Structures to Help Restore New England’s Reef Ecosystem

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3dp_printedreef_oystersYou probably don’t think about oysters very often, even if you happen to enjoy eating them. It turns out that the oyster isn’t single animal, but rather a common name for a wide variety of bivalve mollusks, a type of mollusk with a flat body enclosed by two matching, hinged shells. Some of the more popular species are used for food of course, but there are also varieties that are harvested for their decorative shells, and of course for the pearls that many oysters can create inside of their shells. If there is one thing mankind if good at, it’s destroying nature, so naturally the reefs and natural habitats of this family of mollusks is finding itself being destroyed by overfishing and man made climate change.

3dp_printedreef_woodbury_logoBut a New England shellfish company is hoping to help curb the destruction of the oyster’s natural environment using 3D printed reefs. Pat and Barbara Woodbury own and operate the Woodbury Shellfish Company, and have dedicated their business to farming high-quality shellfish that are sustainable and won’t negatively impact the environment. The couple have been coastal shellfish growers since 1988 and have been instrumental in developing local, sustainable fishing practices and encouraging the local fresh food movement during the past 25 years.

Because many oyster varieties are considered keystone species–meaning an animal that has a disproportionately large effect on its local environment–the married marine biologists are motivated to preserve oyster reef habitats beyond their commercial interests. Oyster beds provide a ready source of food, habitat and safety for a large number of animals that are entirely dependent on their presence for survival. Protecting oysters is vital to protecting hundreds of other species of sea life. For the past five years the Woodburys have found themselves heavily focusing on oyster restoration and to that end they recently teamed up with ceramic 3D printing services bureau Tethon 3D to develop artificial reefs that can hopefully help regrow the oyster population.

“The possibilities for restoring our environment with 3D printing are just now beginning to be explored, particularly with ceramics. As ceramics are made from naturally occurring clay, they are the ideal material to incorporate into the oceans, lakes and soil. Utilizing ceramic 3D printing allows us to create custom designs that would be difficult to mold or make by hand,” explained President and CEO of Tethon 3D Karen Linder.

3dp_printedreefs_harvestingConsidering that 85% of the world’s oyster reefs are currently dying or have already been destroyed due to overfishing, habitat reduction and climate change, Woodbury Shellfish’s efforts are just a drop in the bucket to what needs to be done. It will take more than one shellfish cultivator to change the momentum of oyster habitat destruction, but if the 3D printed reef project is successful in proving that sustainable reefs can also be profitable, it could encourage other companies to change their shellfish farming practices.

The Woodbury's.

The Woodburys.

The 3D printed ceramic structures were designed by the Woodburys to both encourage oyster propagation while simultaneously helping to restore the local marine environment. The reef’s all-natural structure is intended to encourage new populations of oysters to settle, grow and survive, allowing other species of marine life to help restore the local ecosystem. It is too soon to tell what effect this will have in the long run, but the Woodburys say that the preliminary results have been positive.

“Designing in Trimble Sketchup and 3D printing in ceramics with Tethon 3D has allowed us to rapidly create very precise structures that fit our design criteria and can be tested on our shellfish beds in the bay,” said Woodbury Shellfish Company’s Pat Woodbury.

Thankfully the Woodburys are not alone in trying to reverse the damage to oyster habitats, so there is hope for our coastal sea life yet. So far the Woodbury oyster reefs are growing, and the hope is that the 3D printed structures could be used to jump start a new movement of sustainable reef restoration that is easily rolled out in other environments dealing with oyster habitat damage.

What impact do you think these reefs will have on the oyster habitat?  Let us know your thoughts in the 3D Printed Oyster Reef forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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