Over the past 30 years, waterways along Florida’s Big Bend region — from Apalachee Bay, down through Hernando County and into Pasco — have seen a nearly 90 percent decline in the oyster population, research shows.
Local environmentalists in Hernando for years have plotted to fight the problem, which is caused in part by poor water quality. They wanted to build a stronger, man-made habitat where the organisms can thrive, said Brittany Hall-Scharf, a Florida Sea Grant agent with the county’s University of Florida extension office.
The work finally paid off last month, when volunteers helped build an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Hernando Beach near Centipede Bay. Made of about 50,000 pounds of recycled oyster shells, the reef will serve as hub that newborn organisms can adhere to, so they can survive, reproduce, and contribute to the area’s dwindled population. It’s the first of its kind in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties.
Although oysters can’t be harvested for food in Florida south of Levy County, they do a lot of good for the water, Hall-Scharf said. One oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, making for cleaner, clearer waterways.
The reef also will break up waves that contribute to shoreline erosion, Hall-Scharf said, and create an ecosystem for other sea life. Avenues built into the reef, which is shaped like the hull of a ship, will give small species of fish and crabs a place to hide from predators. For birds, the reef will serve as a hunting ground for food.
A $29,000 Coastal Partnership Initiative grant awarded to UF by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, along with a $29,000 match in staff, boat, equipment and volunteer hours from both the university and the county, fueled the project, according to Hernando waterways manager Keith Kolasa. But a group of volunteers clocking nearly 1,300 hours of work collectively did most of the heavy lifting.
Before the reef deployment, community members and teens from groups including Boy Scouts of America and SCUBAnauts, a marine science education program, joined county workers for "bagging days." They piled oyster shells — donated and purchased from a seafood processing company in the Panhandle — into 2,455 20-pound bags, Hall-Scharf said.
On April 14, nearly 100 people, including many who had helped bag, met at the county’s Port Authority building to unload three tractor-trailers full of shells onto boats for hauling to the reef site. In about 4 feet of water, under a cloudless sky, people lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to move the bags to their final resting place on the sandy bottom.
"There is no way we would have been able to make this happen without volunteers," Hall-Scharf said. "Without that dedication and honestly true commitment, it wouldn’t have been possible."
Kolasa said the level of energy he saw from volunteers, including some who traveled from outside the county, made the project special.
"Not every project we do has the sort of draw this did," he said. "It’s meaningful."
University of Florida student Cher Nicholson, an intern for Nature Coast Biological Station, will monitor the reef through the summer to provide data to the county. From there, Kolasa and his team will determine whether the Centipede Bay area is a good location for future reef deployments, or if the next one should be in deeper water.
Success would mean that the reef attracts fish and birds. Kolasa thinks the first sign of that came last week, when he was out marking the site with a new sign: "CAUTION OYSTER REEF RESTORATION AREA."
Fish were swimming through the reef, he said, an osprey stopped by to grab a bite.
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.
BIG WORD: TEXT" target="_blank" >PREVIOUS COVERAGE:SCUBAnauts volunteers assist with artificial reef project off Hernando coast