In an unusual experiment two years ago, unwanted toilets, sinks and other porcelain products were smashed to bits and shaped into two artificial oyster reefs. One such potty-reef was constructed in the Back River, near the runway at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton; the other was built in the Lafayette River in Norfolk.

Now the results are in: Toilets are a good habitat for oysters.

In fact, they may last even longer in the wild than oyster shell the material that Virginia has used for building dozens of reefs as part of its bid to revive native oyster stocks in the lower Chesapeake Bay. The native oysters have been devastated by decades of disease, pollution and lost natural reefs.

But there's one catch. Even when the porcelain goods are donated by contractors and developers, as they were in 2002, the cost of moving and placing these tons of white, shiny scraps into public waterways is more than for shell, said Jim Wesson, director of oyster restoration with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The same is true, he said, of other alternative reef-making substrates the state has tried in recent years, including chunks of coal ash and ground-up concrete.

For now, no one's counting on the toilets. But if Virginia experiences a new shortage of oyster shells which, under a state contract, are dug up from the bottom of the James River porcelain potties again may rise, Wesson said.

"Really, anything that's made into the size of a shell, is hard, and doesn't float, oysters will find it and grow there just fine," he said.

Wesson and a team of scientists, aides and divers recently inspected the reefs, bringing mud-covered samples aboard a research boat and checking them for baby oysters and overall health. They then arrived at the Lafayette River site, near the Norfolk International Terminals at the mouth of the Elizabeth River.

After they found the toilet reefs, Wesson handed Vernon Rowe, an oyster-restoration aide, a bucket of oyster shells mixed with pieces of moss- and sponge-covered porcelain, a sloppy stew of green, orange and black.

Rowe dumped the contents onto a metal sorting board. Then he and Melissa Southworth, an oyster expert with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, began taking notes and recording findings.

There were plenty of baby oysters, or spat, taking root on the surface of the toilet shards just as many as on the real shells, Wesson and Southworth said.

The results were the same a few days before, when the team surveyed the Back River reef, they said.

Full Story