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The making of an oyster reef

Oyster beds off of the coast of Cedar Key, Florida. Seafood, fishing, Gulf of Mexico. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.Almost 90% of the oyster reefs historically present along the Big Bend of Florida have been lost in recent decades. This is a tragic loss for the coastal zone, given the high value of oyster reefs for coastal protection, habitat, fisheries, nutrient cycling, and water quality. Many ecosystem management plans include oyster reef restoration as a key priority because of the immense benefits that can be achieved for coastal communities. One such plan, the Hernando County Strategic Marine Area Plan, called for enhancement of oyster reef habitat in the nearshore areas of Hernando County, from Aripeka to Chassahowitzka.

Centipede Bay Pilot Oyster Reef Project

Conducting a successful oyster reef restoration program presents many challenges. Among these are selecting appropriate reef sites, choosing from a diversity of shell deployment techniques, organizing people, permits, and equipment to be in the right place at the right time, and designing an appropriate monitoring plan. Therefore, a team of UF IFAS Extension faculty partnered with Hernando County to kick-start the county’s oyster reef enhancement efforts. This team aimed to create a small, pilot-scale oyster reef in Centipede Bay, just north of Hernando Beach. The partnership was essential for tackling the technical and logistical challenges presented by even a small scale project such as the Centipede Bay reef.

Preparation and Staging

Volunteers and project team members pose with bagged oyster shell.

Volunteers and project team members show off oyster shell bags they helped make.

The first thing the team needed to accomplish was to obtain oyster shell and allow it to season or cure for a period of months. Well, actually the first thing we needed was a permit, but I won’t bore you with that part. The shell used for the reef was obtained from an oyster shucking house in the FL Panhandle. The shell was stored near the Hernando Beach water tower to cure. This step is necessary to reduce the chance of spreading parasites, disease, and non-native species.

After curing, the shell was bagged up into 2,600+ bags by volunteers during several bagging days in March and April 2018. Volunteers included local and visiting students, Boy/Girl Scouts, ROTC, Master Naturalists, community members, and UF/County staff. The bagged shell was then transported to the Hernando Aquatics facility where it was staged for deployment into the water.


Volunteers build an oyster reef in Hernando County

Volunteers build an oyster reef in Centipede Bay, near Hernando Beach.

On April 14, 2018, over 90 volunteers donated 760 hours of their time to construct the “shipwreck”-shaped reef. Local vessels captained by volunteers joined forces with County-owned barges to taxi loads of shell bags out to the reef site. Both on land and in the water, teams of volunteers moved mountains of bagged shell using the highly efficient “bucket brigade” technique. On site, the bagged shell was guided into place by team leaders, all while members of the media and curious members of the public documented the “shipwreck” coming together.

Team: Dr. Josh Patterson (Assistant Professor of Restoration Aquaculture, UF IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation), Savanna Barry (me, Regional Specialized Florida Sea Grant Agent for Coastal Ecosystems, UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station), Brittany Hall-Scharf (Florida Sea Grant Agent, UF IFAS Extension Hernando County), Cher Nicholson (Intern, UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station), and Keith Kolasa (Aquatic Services Director, Hernando County). The team was awarded a grant from the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection’s Coastal Partnership Initiative in 2017.

3 Comments on “The making of an oyster reef

  1. Yes – that’s the idea. If you put the shell substrate in the right location, new oyster spat will settle and create a living reef over time.

  2. Hi Savannah – I am considering an oyster project for my non-profit and would love to discuss with you further some of your lessons learned. Can you contact me or provide your contact information?