Habitat for Humanity: Oyster Edition



In 2016, Perico Preserve opened in Manatee County as a triumph of reclaimed Florida landscape. Previously farmland, a concerted effort transformed the plowed and processed land into a series of thriving habitats, removing invasive plants, restoring native vegetation and creating a natural sanctuary for birds and other wildlife. An ongoing project to this day, volunteers and representatives from Manatee County and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program will be out in force this Tuesday for the next step in stabilizing the recovering ecosystem—building an oyster reef.

A natural part of most coastal habitats in the Sarasota Bay area, oyster reefs form in nature as the mollusks accumulate in the shallow waters of the shoreline. Landing and settling and stacking on top of each other, the creatures create their own living bit of underwater architecture, which not only provides habitat for other aquatic species, but hunting grounds for the many birds above. And in Perico Preserve, robust oyster reefs could contribute to further reclaiming the land. “They help stabilize our shorelines,” says Darcy Young, SBEP director of planning and communications, “and they help filter the water, making it cleaner and clearer, which is great for everything else living in the water.”

In the case of Tuesday’s mission, volunteers will find little success hoping oysters spontaneously don hard hats and build the reef themselves, so they’ll be doing all the heavy lifting for their little bivalve buddies. Wading into the water and carrying netting weighted down with recycled oyster shells, volunteers will lay the foundation for the beginnings of a new oyster reef, then cover that foundation with heaps and heaps of loose oyster shell that water currents and living creatures can mold into the optimal shape for the environment. “Our hope is that when the oysters spawn,” says Young, “the oyster larvae will settle in these shells and build the reef themselves.” This reef will then help maintain the shorelines carved into the former farmland.

Oyster reefs could even help mitigate red tide, Young says, as a proliferation of oysters can clean up the water by removing nutrients that red tide algae feed on. “So we hope by cleaning up some of those nutrients, that we can reduce the duration and extent of red tide blooms,” she says. And with help from partnerships with START (Solutions to Avoid Red Tide) and the Gulf Coast Oyster Recycling and Renewal Program, oyster reef reconstruction projects can now utilize recycled oyster shells from area restaurants, instead of mining fossilized shells from Central Florida.

And though Tuesday’s event already has a full slate of volunteers and a populated wait list, Young hints at many more events to come, including at least one more oyster reef project this summer. “So we’ll need more and more volunteers,” she says.

Pictured: Volunteers transporting sacks of recycled oyster shells to build a new reef. Photo courtesy of SBEP.

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