In 2011, Keep Pensacola Beautiful received a temporary grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Foundation that funded the Offer Your Shells To Enhance Restoration (OYSTER) initiative. This program worked to rehabilitate populations in the Escambia Bay area in partnership with local restaurants. Continue reading to learn more about this program and to be shucked (pun-intended) by the economic and ecological importance of these tasty bivalves.
Small Organism, Big Impact
Oysters are a keystone species of coastal estuaries in southeast. The density and wellness of an oyster reef is inextricably linked to the health of these ecosystems.
Oysters have many functions, but most regarded is their ability to refine water. On average, a single oyster filters 50 gallons of water each day! This filtration process includes eating microscopic organisms like algae and phytoplankton. Thus, removing murky algae biomass. Oysters then expel a compounded waste containing these vestigial microorganisms and filtered sediments that other species can consume. Reefs are a key component in the overall water quality in the estuary. In fact, seagrass growth is amplified by the cleaner environments produced by oyster reefs. This marine grass is attributed to 80% of the most commercially harvested seafood species.
Rich in biodiversity, oyster reefs are associated with hundreds of species. They provide shelter and/or food for every level of the food chain. Reefs are a feeding ground for crabs, wading birds and game fish like snapper and and grouper. Sessile organisms, like barnacles and mollusks, thrive on the hardened surface oyster reefs provide for them to grow on. Shorebirds use oyster shells to lay eggs, which offer protection and a stable nesting environment. An oyster population’s health effects, whether directly or indirectly, all of these species in some way or another. Therefore, sustaining robust, nourished oyster reefs are paramount to maintaining a healthy estuary.
These reefs act as a natural barrier, serving as both ecological and economic assets. Oyster beds are breakwater-like structures that deter shoreline erosion and fortifying wetlands by decelerating wave and tidal impact. These barriers also help man-made infrastructure stay in-tact by fighting against storm damage.
Economically, aquaculture is a sizable industry in Northwest Florida region due to the close proximity of brackish waterways and saltwater. Seafood, including oysters, are one of the many valuable crops that employ hundreds and feed thousands in the area. They’re a crucial asset to local businesses whose customer base expects locally grown cuisine. Furthermore, oyster beds influence tourism by proxy. The game fish their habitats support encourage fisherman from around the U.S. to visit the Panhandle.
The production of oysters are presently at an all-time low in Northwest Florida due to a steep collapse just under a decade ago caused by the tri-state Water Wars over the Apalachicola River and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. This disintegration of reefs has had far-reaching ecological and economic impacts on surrounding communities. Oyster populations are currently running at 1/10 of their traditional capacity. And while supply has been down, demand has remained up.
Over the last few years, new techniques and mechanisms have been created to cope with the onslaught of these environmental challenges. A popular reef rehabilitation method is oyster shell recycling. Surprisingly, oysters will only grow on other oyster shells, which is why it’s imperative to keep, recycle, clean and replant the ones that we harvest in order to increase populations.
KPB’s Bioremediation Effort
Keep Pensacola Beautiful was granted money for OYSTER by the 5 Star Urban Waters Restoration Fund through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Foundation. This was a collaborative effort between KPB and the Department of Environmental Protection, Northwest Florida Aquatic Preserve.
The used shells came from local restaurants, collected by KPB staff and volunteers. The oysters were then scattered across an unoccupied parking lot in Warrington, where they would weather for several months. Rain, sun, bugs, and bacteria would wipe the shells of all biological material that remained at collection. Then, KPB-recruited volunteers helped package 100 tons of shells into mesh bags. The Department of Environmental Protection utilized the bags as building blocks for a reef rehabilitation project in Bayou Grande. In total, 45 reefs or 3,000 square feet, were constructed. Each reef was set in shallow water, near the shore, where it would help prevent erosion, provide habitat for various species and, of course, foster baby oysters (called spat).
The Department of Environmental Protection continues to monitor these beds. Property owners connected to these beds are very pleased with the beds and join the DEP in considering the project “a success.” In total, 45 reefs, or 3,000 square feet, were constructed.