Local waters dodged a dangerous bullet when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Not a single drop landed in Manatee County, but that won’t stop BP from footing the bill for coastal fortifications.
The Gulf Consortium recently approved its state expenditure plan that will fund projects in 23 Florida counties affected by the 2010 disaster. Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee parks and natural resources department, explained that the county qualified for the money because the proposed projects largely met the agency’s goal of enhancing community resilience.
“We’ve made an effort to widely spread the money from the oil spill,” Hunsicker said. “By doing so, we are building the resiliency of our coast to bounce back, not only to provide a better natural environment, but to bounce back from what could happen.”
The most visible change will be a new fishing pier along Palmetto’s Green Bridge, but Hunsicker said that’s not the project he’s looking forward to the most.
What’s more important than recreation along the Manatee River? The oysters that filter water along the bottom, he explained.
Local historians will recognize that the river used to be called the Oyster River for obvious reasons. When Spanish fleets tried exploring the area, the oyster beds were so thick, they couldn’t enter the area by boat.
One of the biggest projects funded by the Gulf Consortium seeks to restore the Manatee River to its former glory. Hunsicker said the riverbed became muddy and soft from constant dredging and farming, which meant that new oysters didn’t have a solid base to use as an anchor.
This project could be a boon for Manatee, and it just gets better as time goes on, Hunsicker said.
“Like coral reefs that build up over hundreds of thousands of years to become what they are, oyster reefs grow over time as well,” Hunsicker said. “All the living oysters filter water 24-7, five to eight gallons apiece. That’s thousands of filtrations in our rivers and bays, probably at the level of a large wastewater plant, at no cost to us.”
The perks provided by oysters run deeper than clean water, according to the Gulf Consortium: “Benefits of oysters and oyster reef restoration are well documented and include enhanced estuarine habitats, shoreline stabilization, reduced storm surge and erosion, water quality improvements and shelter for more than 300 species that in turn are consumed by recreationally and commercially important finfish and crustaceans.”
The Gulf Consortium is providing $2.6 million to fully fund the oyster restoration project, which is expected to be completed within 12 years, according to the state expenditure plan. Documents indicate that approximately 26,500 cubic yards of oyster reef substrate will be placed “from Fort Hamer Road Bridge to Tampa Bay, including the Braden River, Wares Creek and Warner’s and McLewis bayous.”
The county hopes these efforts go a long way toward improving local water quality, but it will still be a far cry from centuries ago when oysters dominated the river.
But where did all of them go?
Hunsicker said that, just like in other areas of the country, oysters were mostly cleared out for a variety of uses. The Manatee River oyster population tapered off as they were eaten, dredged for roadway construction, or succumbed to natural disease and declining water quality.
According to a 2016 report, the similar phenomenon happened years ago in the New York area, as pioneers and settlers ran through the oyster population in no time. Their voracious hunger for the tasty shellfish may have degraded natural coastal protections.
“A lot of places recognize that this is a good idea to just put this structure on the bottom (of the river) to get more oysters and clams to work on our behalf,” Hunsicker said. “We’re replacing what we’ve used over hundreds of years.”
It’s not the first time Manatee has turned its attention to the beloved bivalve. A group of nearly 300 volunteers has been working with Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START) by bagging oysters and placing them in strategic locations in local waterways.
On Saturday, START will host a Shoreline Shinding along the Bradenton Riverwalk from noon to 3 p.m. to celebrate and educate the community on how shellfish play a vital role in the ecosystem. The free event features food and live music.
Other community resilience improvements funded by the Gulf Consortium include a new Green Bridge fishing pier, a living shoreline at Portosueno Park, Borden Reef enhancements, shellfish aquaculture research, stormwater improvements at GT Bray Park and trail and boardwalk improvements at three county-owned coastal preserves.
“We know very well that we’re vulnerable. These investments will make us more resilient,” Hunsicker said. “The projects we chose will, everyday, support our coastal water quality.”
Funding for these projects is allocated from $5.5 billion in Clean water Act penalties that BP was ordered to pay following the worst oil spill in U.S. history, according to the Department of Justice.
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas also received a portion of the money.