Mentor, kids have a (reef) ball on the bay

May 23, 2010|By Candus Thomson | On the Outdoors

ABOARD THE MISS CAROLYN II — Never bet against a retired school administrator from Middle River. Trust me.

Eight years ago, Bill Huppert dragged me out on the water to watch the launch of his pet project: building reef balls to create underwater condos for oysters, fish and mussels.

An avid fisherman who grew up Huck Finn-style in the 1930s, exploring the crystal ribbons of water that flowed into Middle River and then into the Chesapeake Bay, Huppert was appalled at the degradation of water quality.

But instead of living in the past and just complaining about the present, Huppert decided to leave something for future generations. That seemed only natural for a man who spent his working years as an assistant principal and vice principal in Overlea, Randallstown and Essex.

Reef balls, bell-shaped hunks of concrete with holes in them, would provide artificial habitat to replace what silt and mud had covered over, he reasoned. And kids -- Scouts and students -- would build them, thereby gaining some ownership and an appreciation for stewardship.

Huppert kept after me on the phone and by snail mail. Finally, I caved.

In 2002, 102 reef balls were deployed by the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and the Department of Natural Resources. Huppert had visions of increasing the number tenfold.

I told him to get back to me when he was about to sink No. 1,000.

"That'll hold him," I thought to myself.

Last month, he called. "Ready?" he asked, barely able to contain a chuckle.

So, Thursday about a half-dozen boats motored out of Middle River and from the Canton waterfront and rendezvoused east of Hart-Miller Island, where a workboat from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had a stack of reef balls on its deck.

Students and Scouts from Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties took up positions along the railings. Some snapped pictures. Others tossed oyster shells over the side for good luck.

At 11:35 a.m., the crew attached reef ball No. 1,000 to the crane's hook and dropped it into the bay as the boats blasted their horns and spectators cheered.

Aboard the Miss Carolyn II, carpentry students from Sollers Point Technical High School posed for photos as their handiwork slipped below the water. The guys built 29 reef balls last year and upped production to 34 this year with the help of another class.

A short distance away, seven fourth-graders from Pointers Run Elementary School in Clarksville watched with excitement as their four reef balls disappeared. "I was optimistic but didn't think it would be so early," Huppert said of the milestone. "It says so much about the volunteers and their commitment. It's amazing all of the people who have been involved."

Since Huppert began, others have joined in the habitat-making business. In 2006, the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative turned tens of thousands of tons of concrete from the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge into underwater structure that has attracted fish and fishermen. Off the coast of Ocean City, charter Capt. Monty Hawkins has led efforts to restore productive fishing spots by sinking old New York City subway cars into the Atlantic.

But few have embraced it like Huppert, who not only has made the reef ball project part of his life, but also is planning to have his ashes mixed in the cement when he is gone.

"I'm going to be habitat," said Huppert, 84, smiling. "I'll be down there, too, someday."

Back at the dock, the girls from Pointers Run couldn't wait to talk about their contribution and their hope that the reef ball program will be offered when they get to middle school.

"It was amazing watching what we made go into the water to save the oysters," Michaela Cohee said. "It felt good."

You snooze, you lose

If you wait until Friday to try to register your boat or get a fishing license from one of DNR's seven service centers, you'll be up the Memorial Day creek without a paddle.

The state Furlough and Temporary Salary Reduction Plan (sounds like something from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, eh?), means no boat registration for you and a trip to a local tackle shop -- not a bad thing -- for fishing licenses.

This inconvenience was announced by the head of the DNR, not the governor, who only likes to boast about his accomplishments, and this is not one of them.

If the Friday before Memorial Day is one of the busiest days at the service centers, as the DNR says it is, why would you pick that day to close? Why not June 1?

Just asking.

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