PENSACOLA — Rather than tending to pet guinea pigs or iguanas, Pensacola water quality advocates are encouraging students to raise baby oysters.
The project by Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. owner Donnie McMahon III and the nonprofit Bream Fishermen Association supplies children with a bag of 75 tiny oysters and a cage in exchange for a $50 donation to the association, which works to improve the quality of water in area bays and estuaries.
McMahon recently opened the oyster nursery and is supplying the oysters free of charge.
"Our ultimate goal is to raise awareness about water quality and to encourage children to become interested in marine sciences," said McMahon, who is raising about 8 million oysters in his Perdido Key-area nursery.
The groups have reached out to area school districts and hope to eventually bring the program to classrooms. Marine biologist Barbara Albrecht, president of the Bream Fishermen Association, said oysters have a tremendous environmental benefit because, fully grown, they filter about 55 gallons of water every day.
"Can you imagine if everyone who had a dock in our area had a bag of oysters tied to the end of it?" said Albrecht, who is organizing the oyster project.
Raising oysters requires dedication, Albrecht said. Participants must attend a workshop to learn how to clean and care for the oysters, which should hang in a cage about 2 feet below the water surface.
It takes about nine months for the oysters to grow. Once they are fully grown, Bream Fishermen place them in area reefs so they can continue to filter water and serve as a habitat for other marine species.
McMahon, who is also a marine biologist, started his Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. in 2014. Although he lost about 400,000 oysters earlier this year after heavy rainfall disturbed the salinity of the water, he isn't giving up on his dream of creating a thriving Pensacola oyster industry.
McMahon opened his oyster nursery in August and hopes to one day bring an oyster hatchery to region. The hatchery would create locally spawned oysters and would be the first such hatchery in the state of Florida.
At the Perdido Key-area nursery, manager Jonathan York tends to 8 million tiny oysters in various stages of growth. The oysters remain at the nursery for a couple of months before they are ready to be placed in cages in area waterways.
York, a former professional fisherman, said the oysters are crucial in helping area fish species to thrive.
"The quality of the water is so much better because of the oysters, and that helps the entire ecosystem," he said.
The oysters arrive at the nursery the size of a tiny bead and grow to about 6 millimeters before they are placed in cages.
York said the company hopes to eventually supply as many as 20,000 oysters a week to oyster farmers. The company sells its fully grown oysters to wholesalers and restaurants around the Southeastern United States.
"Our crop loss was heartbreaking because we had put so much time and energy into the oysters. We had buyers lined up and then we lost everything," he said.
But York said the company has learned from the setback.
"We are not the kind of people to sit around not doing anything," he said. "We've started the nursery and we will be selling oysters again soon."
In the meantime, York said he is excited about supplying some of his tiny oysters to area children for the Bream Fishermen Association project.
"It is a very cool way for children to learn about oysters and water quality," he said.