By: Hannah O. Brown, Graduate Student in the UF IFAS School of Natural Resources and Environment and UF IFAS NCBS/Florida Sea Grant Fellow

Oysters are important but threatened

You can’t spend any real time in North Florida without getting invited to an oyster roast. Growing up just outside of Fernandina Beach, my family’s traditions centered around oysters—from oyster dressing on the Thanksgiving table to shucking shells raw in the backyard of my grandparent’s house. Oysters were always important for me culturally, but it wasn’t until later that I learned of how integral they are for Florida’s estuaries and the fisheries that depend on them.

Oyster beds off of the coast of Cedar Key, Florida. Seafood, fishing, Gulf of Mexico. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones. that depend on them.

Oyster reefs are one of the most at risk ecosystems on the planet. An estimated 85 percent of oyster populations have been lost globally in recent decades, and Florida’s Nature Coast saw a 66 percent net loss of oyster reef area from 1982 to 2011—a total of 125 hectares. As oyster reefs disappear, so do the multitude of ecosystem services that this resource offers. That means less protection from erosion, more decaying material, bacteria and contaminants in estuarine waters, and less habitat for commercially important fish. The culture and lifestyle of many coastal towns who rely on oyster harvesting are also at risk.

How can oyster restoration work for everyone?

Apalachicola, for example, is a historically recognized oyster estuary that has experienced drastic reef declines in recent years. Luckily, many researchers and natural resource managers have recognized the decline of oyster reefs as a significant problem and have embarked on oyster restoration projects to try and keep Florida’s estuaries in balance. Managing oyster reefs is a difficult task, however, when all of the interests of those who rely on oysters are considered and accounted for. My research focuses on how those who rely on oysters can work together to preserve the resource in a way that works for everyone, not just those who have the power to set regulations.

Through a series of four studies, I will look at the social science of oyster restoration on the Gulf Coast—from the ways newspapers tell oyster restoration stories to how people with different priorities work together to plan, construct and manage restored reefs. I plan to collect data from restoration projects in all five Gulf states, and to make connections with the diverse groups of people that live and work in the Gulf’s estuaries. Funding from the UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station and Florida Sea Grant has made this project possible, supporting my travel, equipment and other research expenses. The end goal of this project is to help inform future restoration initiatives on the ways that they can better collaborate between diverse groups by including a variety of perspectives to help inform management decisions from start to finish.