For some families, a lesson on the importance on sustaining healthy oyster beds for the coastal environment was a hands-on lesson.
Oyster Extravaganza brought out 33 volunteers, including adults and children, to Perico Preserve on Saturday to help build oyster mats — in an effort to rebuild oyster beds.
“These are going to be basically carpets of oysters that were built all by volunteers, and we will place them out in the bay and in the surrounding areas to grow new oyster beds,” said Aedan Stockdale, education program manager for the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department.
A few oyster bags (mesh bags filled with oyster shells) and vertical oyster gardens (shells strung on a rope) also were built by volunteers. The bags are used to build beds along shorelines, and the vertical gardens are hung from docks or boat ramps.
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Saturday’s project was part of the Gulf Oyster Recycling and Renewal Program — a pilot program in which oyster shells from the Chiles Group restaurants — Sandbar, Beach House and Mar Vista — are going to be recycled and later used to help rebuild the estuary around Perico Preserve.
On Saturday, the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department teamed up with community partners that included the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Manatee County extension, the Chiles Group, the Gulf Shellfish Institute, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and START, Solutions To Avoid Red Tide, a nonprofit organization founded in Longboat Key.
“Oysters can taste other oysters,” Stockdale said. “They are more likely to grow where there are other oyster shells.”
Rebuilding the oyster beds will create a healthy hatchery not only for new oysters but also for other marine life that grows on the shells or feed on what grows on the shells, explained Stockdale and Darcy Young, public outreach manager at Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.
“When this area was developed around mid-century, we saw a lot of dredge and fill, which killed a lot of the hard-bottom as well as our seagrass,” Young said, “We are trying to bring back some of that historic habitat.”
Oysters are important because they are filter feeders helping clean the water, Young said. It’s a fact many people may not know, she said.
“But they also help stabilize our shoreline, and they can actually reflect some of the wave motion,” Young said.
The effort is helpful in fighting against shore erosion, she said, and since 1988, restoration projects have also helped rebuild 55 percent of the seagrass.
Other projects to rebuild oyster beds, such as in Robinson Preserve, have utilized shells that the county has purchased from quarry mines.
But the Gulf Oyster Recycling and Renewal Program is about bringing everything full circle, explained Mary Anne Bowie, the project manager for START. It begins with the harvesting of healthy oysters for local restaurants. Then the shells from oysters served are recycled instead on being thrown out. The shells then are brought to the preserve, where they are later used to rebuild oyster beds.
There are educational and research opportunities along the way as well, Bowie said. “The value added is that its a value to the community, to the economy and to the environment.”