Oyster shells that once sat on your plate at one of your favorite seafood restaurants are probably now strung together as part of a vertical oyster garden designed to help improve water quality. from Sarasota Bay.
A vertical oyster bed is made from recycled oyster shells and suspended below the docks to create a hard substrate in which juvenile oysters can settle and grow.
“There’s a lot of interest in creating artificial reefs under the docks because it’s unused space,” said Shaun Swartz, environmental scientist with the Manatee County Department of Natural Resources. “These are an alternative to some of the plastic-based ones that don’t last as long.”
The new initiative was created to improve the region’s marine ecosystems.
“Clams and oysters filter water simply by living in the waterway,” he said. “They are filter feeders. They can remove nutrients from water and increase water quality and clarity so much that you can grow sea grasses and mangroves.
Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, which may contribute to growing concern among locals about the future of the region’s water quality, Swartz said.
“(The oysters) are the superheroes of this ecosystem,” Swartz said while participating in a Longboat Key “Talk of the Town” segment.
In the segment with City Manager Tom Harmer, he illustrated the importance and benefits of oyster shells in hopes of increasing community awareness of the program and encouraging participation.
Manatee County and the City of Longboat Key have partnered with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Sarasota Estuary Program and Solutions to Avoid Red Tide as they begin to scatter garden gardens oysters to residents with docks as part of a recent initiative to improve local ecosystems.
Shells that are part of the gardens are quarantined for about six months before being hung with other shells, which helps eliminate harmful bacteria and food-borne illnesses the shells may have been exposed to afterwards. having been prepared and consumed in restaurants.
“It’s basically taking what would otherwise be waste in our landfill and creating something out of it,” Swartz said.
A dozen restaurants are working with the department and its partners to recycle used shellfish.
The oyster shells are strung by volunteers who drill small holes in the shells before threading the twine, which has stainless steel wire in the middle, through the holes. The wire aids in ensuring that the garden has a strong hold under the dock.
Swartz also brings piles of shellfish to local schools for students to string oysters and learn about oyster and shellfish restoration.
County and area residents have the opportunity to pick up their own pre-made vertical oyster gardens free of charge from a drop box at the Robinson Preserve.
Currently, the reserve’s drop box is the only place residents can pick up their vertical oyster beds, but Swartz and the department are exploring ways to expand for easier access to the rest of the county.
The drop box can only store between 10 and 15 vertical oyster beds at a time. However, interest in over 200 oyster gardens was brought to Swartz, who helped coordinate the delivery of the shells to the homes.
Those interested in using the drop box must complete a survey using a QR code on the panel near the box to receive the code needed to open the lock.
The survey asks the resident if they are willing to participate in a citizen science monitoring effort. The effort is still ongoing, but Swartz said the goal is to gather data about the oyster beds and their progress through images and questions answered by participants.
Word-of-mouth and easy access to the free product contributed to public interest in the initiative. Swartz said he has yet to meet anyone who opposes the idea.
Although this initiative is more recent, the concept is not new to Swartz or the department. Vertical oyster beds have already been deployed, some of which have been under the reserve’s fishing docks for over a year.
“(The program) engages the community, involves them and then raises awareness for oyster restoration on a larger scale,” he said.
It takes between six weeks and six months for life to establish itself on the shells moored under the quays.
Within six weeks it is typical to see barnacles, sea worms and crabs remaining on the shells. The growth of juvenile oysters takes longer.
“When you have space for small, slimy creatures like crabs and worms and juvenile fish, that attracts other things into the food web,” Swartz said. “It creates prey and space for that prey, so the bigger fish can come in and eat. It supports greater wildlife in the area.
It is believed that the project will continue for the long term in hopes of continued community support to ensure optimal success.
“This community-based approach is quite unique, especially local government across county and organizational boundaries,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, I don’t know anyone else who does it like that.”
One of the most recent deployments of the oyster beds was at Joan Durante Park in Longboat Key. Swartz tied 50 strings of oyster shells to the bottom of viewing platforms along the park’s waterfront promenade.
“You’re unlikely to see any growth on these because they’ve only been around for a few weeks,” he said.
Although shellfish must remain underwater at all times, some oyster beds will be easily visible to the public.
The proposed solution to improve water quality and ecosystem sustainability was chosen for its sustainability and lasting impacts on the ecosystem.
“Once installed, they’re virtually maintenance-free,” Swartz said. “I always go back and check them just to make sure they’re okay and to monitor growth and establishment. They are really easy to use and they don’t require much maintenance.
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