Shoreline Shindig at Bradenton Riverwalk highlights Manatee’s oyster restoration efforts

Sarasota Bay Watch volunteers explain environmental mission

Two Sarasota Bay Watch volunteers explain the group's mission to improve local water quality by bringing more shellfish, like scallops, oysters and clams to the area. The group has released hundreds of thousands of juvenile shellfish in the water.
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Two Sarasota Bay Watch volunteers explain the group's mission to improve local water quality by bringing more shellfish, like scallops, oysters and clams to the area. The group has released hundreds of thousands of juvenile shellfish in the water.

If you can’t eat ‘em, grow ‘em.

That was the name of the game at the Shoreline Shindig hosted along the Bradenton Riverwalk on Saturday afternoon. Hundreds gathered in the park to learn about nature’s automatic water filter.

The event was put on by Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START), which has sponsored a renewed effort to foster oyster growth in Manatee County. Mary Anne Bowie, the organization’s program manager, said the oysters in Manatee River aren’t fit for eating, but they still provide significant contributions to water quality.

The Shoreline Shindig put 20 of START’s local partners in one place to educate the public about how oyster restoration reaches into every corner of the community.

“The goal today is edutainment,” Bowie said. “We’ want everybody to learn how valuable oysters are.”

Bowie’s booth featured some of the techniques her group is using to establish a strong oyster population. Oyster mats, vertical oyster gardens that you can hang from dock, concrete molds that mimic the shape of mangroves and more were on display for visitors to see what they can do to help.

A big part of START’s project comes from oysters eaten at local restaurants. Those shells are saved and shipped back to Perico Preserve, where over 900 volunteers have helped clean them and get them ready for reuse.

During a visit to Saturday afternoon’s Shoreline Shindig along the Bradenton Riverwalk, Tracy Topjun and her two children, Selby and Bodhy, learn about reef balls, which are used to attract and develop coral reefs. Ryan Callihan rcallihan@bradenton.com

According to Charlie Hunsicker, Director of the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department, the bottom of the Manatee River has become soft and barren, which means oysters don’t have a firm base to land and grow on. Attaching old oyster shells to mats or other material gives new oyster larvae a spot to land and anchor on as they establish their own shell on top.

The county recently announced an initiative funded by the RESTORE Act, which consists of money paid by BP as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to lay more than 26,000 cubic yards of substrate along Manatee waterways.

“The goal is have more oysters growing here, so we can help nature help itself. Each of these shellfish filter between 30 and 50 gallons of water a day,” Bowie explained. “That’s a whole bathtub.”

Robinson Preserve is one of the main places START has focused its efforts. Bowie said the results are noticeable — both visually and audibly.

“If you go out and look at the oyster bed we’ve laid, you can literally see and hear the oysters bubbling and filtering the water,” she said.

Aedan Stockdale, the parks and natural resources education program manager, works closely with the volunteers that pack the oysters into bags and onto mats. While water quality is a byproduct of their efforts, he explained that another big benefit is the creation of habitats for other marine life.

“We’ve already seen oysters growing in all of our reefs. It’s already become a whole system in less than a year,” said Stockdale. “We’ve seen more fish and more wading birds. It all works together.”

At least one family stumbled upon the event by accident, they said. But they were glad they did. Tracy Topjun was walking with her kids Selby and Bodhy when she came across the Shoreline Shindig. Her son led the way from booth to booth.

“It was cool to see how they help oysters grow on concrete,” he said.

Topjun said she grew up in Sarasota and remembers eating clams right out of the bay.

“I know you can’t eat the ones from around here anymore, but it’d be nice to bring that back,” she said.

At another booth manned by high school volunteers from Sarasota Bay Watch, Lawton Roberts and his mom, Danielle Stevens, got to see live shellfish up close and personal. He said playing with the clams in the water was his favorite part of the day.

Lawton Roberts poses for a photo at the Sarasota Bay Watch table Saturday afternoon. Volunteers at the booth allowed visitors to interact with clams in a tank. Ryan Callihan rcallihan@bradenton.com

Josh Clark and Finn Johnson became volunteers with Sarasota Bay Watch in the past few months. Both said they’ve always been active in water activities and figured it was time for them to do their part to help improve local water quality after seeing how red tide has hit the area.

“Everyone can have an impact and we can stop the factors that affect the problems,” Josh said.

The issue of red tide has been politicized by local and state politicians. However, Finn said he doesn’t believe that pointing fingers is the answer.

“It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. I’ve seen business affected greatly and owners are cutting their staff from eight people to just two people,” he said. “It’s an issue that needed to be resolved five years ago, honestly.”

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