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NCBS Intern Report: Shellfish Restoration and Extension

Written by 2019 Summer Intern Samantha Hoskins, with host Peter Frederick from UF IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

Prior to this internship, I associated oysters with the wealthy bourgeoisie— people who owned beachfront property and ate oysters on ice while sipping champagne and discussing the stock market. Oysters were often listed at the top of menus next to those intimidating and italicized words: “Market Price.”  I came to learn that oysters were previously more of a “poor man’s” food until wild oyster populations plummeted, greatly decreasing the supply of oysters.

Kwan’s Clusters

After working for Wildlife Ecology and Conservation/School of Natural Resources and Environment PhD student and Florida Sea Grant Scholar Kwanmok Kim, I came to appreciate the oyster not as a food source but as a physical buttress— a complex, mathematically-describable structure akin to a building material useful as a sea wall and home for macro and microorganisms.  Kim CT scanned wild oyster clusters and 3D printed a model to create molds and fabricated hundreds of faux oyster clusters.  

An intrepid team of volunteers and employees, of which I was an enthusiastic participant, were tasked with deploying these clusters onto the oyster bars near Cedar Key. It was a daunting task, and along with other tasks undertaken by the lab resulted in some carpal tunnel syndrome along with a few scrapes and bruises along the way.  But we welcomed the sacrifices for the sake of science.  The research may be applied one day to optimize restoration efforts.  Determining which arrangements of clusters result in which level of wildlife colonization will be a helpful metric. 

Tweitmann’s Research

I also worked for Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Masters student Annalee Tweitmann, a friendly and ambitious student who completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell University.  During our long conversations on rides from the University of Florida campus to the boat ramp, Tweitmann introduced me to the field of conservation paleontology.  Scientists in Virginia used oyster fossils to help determine a “true baseline” of the oyster habitat in the Chesapeake Bay, and this knowledge was applied to restoration efforts. Tweitmann’s work in the Frederick Lab does not involve fossils so far.  She is examining the effects of salinity and elevation on oyster mortality and growth.  To do this, she is constructing artificial trays made from oyster shell embedded in concrete and placing live oysters within this matrix. The live oysters are culled from wild oyster clusters and individually cleaned and labeled.

The Future is Restoration 
In both endeavors, I reflected upon the difficulties of creating artificial structures and designing manmade experiments around the constraints of nature.  While the Nature Coast is beautiful and the waters generally shallow, this area is also unforgiving in its heat, sudden storms and changing tides.  There is no room for error and nature is unconcerned with the pursuits of scientists, though hopefully our work will benefit the ecosystem and create a more productive fishery. If oysters are restored to their historic levels, they could one day be pennies a piece instead of that opulent “Market Price.”