Courtesy of Peter Solomon

Located offshore near the Sound School in New Haven, the “New Haven Harbor Living Laboratory” is an artificial oyster reef that works to protect local marine species biodiversity and guard the shoreline from storm surges and erosion. 

Originally founded in 2017 by multiple seniors at the Sound School, a vocational aquaculture high school, as part of their capstone, the reef currently consists of thirteen “reef balls,” each of which is two feet in diameter and made of a combination of cement, sand, gravel and oyster shell. Beyond its environmental advantages, which includes improving the local water quality by filtering it through oysters, the reef serves as a living laboratory for both the Sound School and Yale students, who can conduct scientific research and gain technical skills. 

“The mission of the school is to help students become stewards of the environment and aquaculture,” said Peter Solomon, the aquaculture coordinator at the Sound School, referring to the reef’s practical and learning value. 

The reef grew in size and scope after James Nikkel, a research scientist in the Yale Physics Department and the director of the Advanced Prototyping Center, located in the Wright Lab, helped the school in 2022 secure a seed grant from Yale Planetary Solutions, a program that aims to raise awareness about climate change and biodiversity.

After receiving initial funding, the reef project sought to secure an environmental permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the state Department of Agriculture. 

“You need to go through a bunch of hoops to get permitting to put something into the water,” Nikkel said. 

In collaboration with John Buell, the chair of the New Haven Harbor Foundation, Nikkel worked with an independent engineering firm to develop project-design drawings for the expanded reef. Ultimately, the team hopes for the project to become a self-sustaining reef. While recruitment of species from the wild stocks is high, the current die-off levels exceed the natural birth rates.

According to Nicole Bouve, the environmental and underwater science teacher at the Sound School and the project lead for the reef, they hope to build and install 100 new balls by 2027, when the permit ultimately expires. Importantly, Sound School students are the ones building the new reef balls. 

“The students are really bought into the program because they are the ones doing all of the work,” Bouve said. 

Still, the project faces some time and weather constraints. Due to low water temperatures in the winter, the balls can only be installed in late spring and summer and students have to organize their data collection around the oyster growth cycle, from May through October. Further, given that the seed grant funding was completed in October 2023, the project leaders need to pursue more grants.  

According to Arina Telles, a graduate student who works in the Advanced Prototyping Center and is involved in the project, the reef grows little during the winter, so students don’t dive during that time. Nevertheless, she said she is looking forward to conducting more dives in the spring to study the reef more systematically.

Solomon noted that the team installed a data logger prototype on a reef ball to ensure continuous remote collection of data, such as water pH levels, temperatures and oxygen concentrations. The logger is connected through cables to a battery charged from a buoy-based solar panel. 

The team expressed optimism about the reef’s future. Though he acknowledged that this will take several years, Buell hopes for the development of  “a very extensive oyster reef that will build on itself.”

The reef aims to connect the broader New Haven and other state communities with their history, traditions and the environment. Solomon hopes that the reef will join one of the many service-based aquaculture projects being developed across Connecticut with different educational institutions. According to Buell, there is a growing national interest in similar reefs, such as the Billion Oyster Project in the New York Harbor. 

“It’s a really exciting time, I think we’re headed in a very positive direction as a state,” Solomon said.

The Sound School is located at 60 South Water St. 

Correction, Feb. 5: This article was corrected to reflect that the reef doesn’t grow in the winter and therefore students don’t need to monitor it closely. It has also been corrected to note that the researchers work at the Advanced Prototyping Center, not the Advanced Photocopying Center, within the Wright Lab.