SCCF’s oys­ter reefs com­pleted, now time for them to get cozy in new un­der­wa­ter homes

SCCF’s oys­ter reefs com­pleted, now time for them to get cozy in new un­der­wa­ter homes

RSWLiving - - Features - BY CRAIG GAR­RETT Craig Gar­rett is Group Ed­i­tor-in-Chief for TOTI Me­dia.

If you’ rea noys­ter,w el come­back. South­west Florida en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists an­tic­i­pate that an am­bi­tious project to re­store oys­ter beds will be­gin pay­ing dividends this year. Acres of new oys­ter beds in Tar­pon Bay and San Car­los Bay off Sani­bel and the Mat­lacha Pass Na­tional Wildlife Refuge off Pine Is­land were com­pleted in Jan­uary. Stiff winds had slowed barge crews dump­ing reef­ing shells in the bays. An ear­lier oys­ter project in Clam Bayou on Sani­bel has proven suc­cess­ful.

Peo­ple and nat­u­ral causes have stag­gered oys­ters in South­west Florida, state wildlife au­thor­i­ties re­port. Ex­perts plan to mon­i­tor new oys­ter com­mu­ni­ties for two years.

A small volunteer army and a ma­rine con­trac­tor, tons of quar­ried and do­nated shells, and state fund­ing in 2015 came to­gether to re­store oys­ter reefs in Gulf es­tu­ar­ies, says Eric Mil­brandt, a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Sani­bel-Cap­tiva Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion (SCCF) Ma­rine Lab­o­ra­tory, the project’s ar­chi­tect and co­or­di­na­tor. Oys­ters had suf­fered a cat­a­strophic de­ple­tion, he says. “We’re try­ing to make [oys­ter] habi­tat bet­ter around Sani­bel to help them build more re­silience.”

In a white paper Mil­brandt co-au­thored in 2015, he and oth­ers as­serted habi­tat loss is the great­est threat to ocean life. It’s the same story― de­vel­op­ment and coastal pop­u­la­tion growth driving the losses with ac­tiv­i­ties such as chan­nel dredg­ing, sew­er­age and chem­i­cal dis­charges, and oys­ter over­har­vest­ing. Nat­u­ral flood­ing, beach ero­sion and sand drift, storms, dis­eases and other nat­u­ral causes have con­trib­uted to oys­ter, man­grove and sea­grass dev­as­ta­tion, among a chain of eco­log­i­cal calami­ties in coastal Florida. It’s es­ti­mated that oys­ter pop­u­la­tions have suf­fered 85 to 90 per­cent losses over five decades.

Oys­ters, or salt­wa­ter clams, thrive on reefs―top­ping the menu for fish, whelks and crabs. Their true value is as ecosys­tem en­gi­neers, fil­ter­ing food and oxy­gen by pump­ing wa­ter across their gills. In fact, one adult oys­ter can fil­ter 50 gal­lons in 24 hours, ac­cord­ing to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion. Feed­ing oys­ters take in viruses, bac­te­ria, phy­to­plank­ton, al­gae, sed­i­ments and chem­i­cal con­tam­i­nants in the wa­ter. Of course, they’re tasty on ice, which con­trib­uted, oddly, to the cam­paign in the Gulf― restau­rants in and around Sani­bel do­nated thou­sands of shucked oys­ter shells. A Charlotte County firm also pro­vided truck­loads of ex­ca­vated fos­sil shells. Another con­trac­tor, SteMic Ma­rine Con­struc­tion, trucked fos­silized shells from an Ar­ca­dia quarry to San Car­los Bay. The firm’s barges hauled the shells to se­lected sites, where two acres of in­di­vid­ual reefs were placed in ti­dal wa­ter about waist deep. The oys­ter work was “very cool,” SteMic vice pres­i­dent Mike Jones says. “Cer­tainly dif­fer­ent.”

Se­ri­ous oys­ter restora­tion started in 2006 with con­struc­tion of a box cul­vert en­ter­ing Clam Bayou on Sani­bel. It had been a 400-acre warm-wa­ter va­ca­tion­land for oys­ters and other sea crea­tures. Ti­dal-flow block­age of Clam Bayou from shift­ing sand, how­ever, killed off vir­tu­ally ev­ery liv­ing thing in the bayou, in­clud­ing sea­grasses, man­groves, fish and oys­ters. Man­grove

re­plant­ing cam­paigns fol­lowed cul­vert con­struc­tion. There were mixed re­sults, Mil­brandt says, largely be­cause man­groves are sen­si­tive to the bal­ance of salt and tides. Oys­ter reefs in­tro­duced to Clam Bayou showed pos­i­tive set­tle­ment rates.

The Florida De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion (DEP) ini­tially awarded a pair of $500,000 grants to reestab­lish oys­ter pop­u­la­tions and sea­grass beds in the In­dian River La­goon’s St. Lu­cie Estuary along the state’s east coast and the Caloosahatchee Estuary in South­west Florida. The grants went to the Florida Oceano­graphic So­ci­ety and to SCCF. Both agen­cies cre­ated restora­tion and mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams. “The St. Lu­cie and Caloosahatchee es­tu­ar­ies are vi­tal nat­u­ral re­sources that must be main­tained and sup­ported,” DEP Deputy Sec­re­tary for Ecosys­tem Restora­tion Drew Bartlett said at the time. “These projects will help re­store healthy oys­ter pop­u­la­tions and sea­grass beds, which are im­por­tant to these ecosys­tems and our econ­omy,” he said, adding that harm­ful fresh­wa­ter dis­charges have re­sulted in losses of oys­ters and sea­grasses in both es­tu­ar­ies.

The Florida Oceano­graphic So­ci­ety has been restor­ing oys­ter reefs and sea­grasses since 2005. Its shell­fish hatch­ery has pro­duced mil­lions of oys­ters for restora­tion pro­grams. Ad­di­tion­ally, the so­ci­ety has grown five com­mon na­tive species of sea­grasses for test­ing and suc­cess stud­ies. SCCF will also grow and re­plant founder colonies of sub­merged aquatic veg­e­ta­tion to build re­siliency by pro­vid­ing a source of healthy reefs and veg­e­ta­tion, a DEP re­port states.

Back on Sani­bel, Mil­brandt says nearly 80 vol­un­teers were keys to the oys­ter project’s suc­cess, with a cross-sec­tion of ages and back­grounds pitch­ing in to build reefs, bucket by bucket. “It was great,” he says.

The St. Lu­cie and Caloosahatchee es­tu­ar­ies are vi­tal nat­u­ral re­sources that must be main­tained and sup­ported.” —Drew Bartlett, Florida De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Deputy Sec­re­tary for Ecosys­tem Restora­tion

Vol­un­teers pitch in on the oys­ter-bed restora­tion project co­or­di­nated by the Sani­bel-Cap­tiva Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion. Oys­ters are ecosys­tem en­gi­neers fil­ter­ing wa­ter con­tam­i­nants.

SteMic Ma­rine Con­struc­tion barges fos­silized shells to San Car­los Bay off Sani­bel. Two acres of reefs were placed in waist-deep ti­dal wa­ter. Crane Ex­ca­va­tor Brad Re­de­nius/SteMic Ma­rine (above right) loads shells brought from an Ar­ca­dia quarry. One...

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