[GUEST POST] by Hernando County Florida Sea Grant Agent Brittany Hall-Scharf
Oysters are bivalve mollusks that attach to hard surfaces, such as wood pilings and other oyster shells, forming reef-like clusters that can be quite extensive. They are often found in coastal estuaries, transitional areas where fresh water from rivers and streams meets the ocean, and are capable of tolerating a wide range of salinities.
By using their gills, oysters filter nutrients and microscopic algae from the water column. A single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day! Although this does help to improve the water quality of the area, oysters contribute much more to us and the ecosystem.
Healthy oyster populations are vital to coastal environments because they help to protect shorelines from wave action and storm surges. These natural, living breakwaters interact with wave energy – like an engineered seawall, but better – to stabilize sediments and prevent erosion from occurring.
In addition to this erosion control, these multi-dimensional reefs provide a nursery habitat for various bottom-dwelling invertebrates and fishes. Many organisms will seek refuge from predation in the oyster reefs while larger sport fish utilize these structures as feeding grounds. Oysters also provide a solid structure within the water column for many sessile organisms to attach and grow. These complex communities even provide a place for people to go bird watching or fishing. They are thriving with life.
Researchers estimate that the oyster reefs in the Big Bend region of Florida have declined 88% over the past 30 years and are considered one of most imperiled marine habitats on the planet. Because of this, a team of scientists have come together to help restore and enhance the oyster reefs along Hernando County’s coast. Over the past six months, Florida Sea Grant Agent, Brittany Hall-Scharf has been working closely with Keith Kolasa, Hernando County’s Aquatic Service Manager, to collect preliminary data on the natural oysters in the area. Each month, Brittany and Keith visit sites selected by the County’s Port Authority to measure physical parameters, such as salinity and temperature, of the water and assess the health of the surrounding oysters.
Most recently, Brittany and Keith deployed recruitment traps to get a better understanding of what the natural oysters in the area are doing. When oysters spawn, they release egg and sperm into the water column where their larva will remain for approximately two weeks. From here, the larva will attach to a hard surface, such as the recruitment traps, where they begin to grow and eventually develop into adult oysters. Check out what they have grown in just 2 months!
See also: New UF IFAS project to undertake large-scale oyster restoration in the Big Bend http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/global/2016/11/16/grant-build-ecological-resilience-big-bend/