Volunteers help to restore reefs by planting oyster gardens

The time has come to stir the oysters at St. Stanislaus high school on Mississippi's Gulf coast.

Volunteers help to restore reefs by planting oyster gardens

Students sitting on a platform at the school's long Pier gently shake the oyster garden's wire enclosures. This helps to remove any mud or algae that may be clinging onto the shells.

The students from Bay St. Louis are part a volunteer force that raises oysters along the coasts of the United States. They do this by raising translucent spats as wide as a soda straw and hard-shelled bivalves to help replenish depleted reefs.

Oyster reefs play a vital role in coastal ecosystems. Every oyster can filter 25 to 50 gallons (95 - 190 liters) water per day. Spat attach themselves to larger oysters to grow. The reefs are habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, and other marine life and protect the shorelines.

There are over 1,000 oyster gardens in Alabama, Mississippi, Maryland, Virginia, and Mississippi alone. Most of them are wire cages suspended from private docks.

Dennis Hatfield, Gulf Shores, Alabama said that he is amazed at the number of fish, crabs, shrimps, and sponges he finds in his Little Lagoon cages each summer.

He said that he felt very positive about creating habitat in the lagoon and added that many of the 50,000- 55,000 oysters grown there each season go to the reefs in Mobile Bay.

In 1950s America, an average 37,400 tonnes of oysters were harvested annually from brackish water. Federal figures show that oyster harvests in America fell 68% to 11,900 tons per year in 1990s due to overharvesting, parasites and smothering sediment, as well as pollution.

Because oysters are grown near the surface by commercial farmers, they mature faster in areas that hold more plankton and can be removed more easily from predators.

The same techniques are used in oyster gardening, but on a smaller scale. However, oysters are not being grown to be half-shelled or deep fried.

Bob Stokes, Galveston Bay Foundation director in Texas, stated that it's both education and restoration. He said that volunteers become "engaged in caring for the bay they live on."

More than 20 large plastic "shrimp baskets," which held oyster clumps, were used to collect the Little Lagoon oysters.

They are large enough to spawn next spring and they are now on reefs being repaired for fishing or kept for future generations as broodstock. No harvest is allowed.

Baby oysters were severely affected by heavy rainfalls in the Mississippi Sound during spring and summer. The majority of the shells found in St. Stanislaus's late June cages contained silt by mid-November. However, most juveniles that survived were less than one inch in length.

Rayne Palmer, a graduate student at Auburn University, advised that you should not count two oysters if you find one.

Letha Boudreaux from St. Stanislaus, who heads the marine biology program, stated that empty shells can also end up on reefs.

Oyster shells, which are hard-surface spat prefer, are used to make entire artificial reefs. Galveston Bay uses mesh bags to hold the shells in the water, which attracts spat and gives them a head start.

The Chesapeake Bay was the first place where oyster gardening began. Harvests had dropped 90% in just two decades.

The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant's oyster farming program was based on the Chesapeake's. It was started in Alabama as master's thesis research in 2001.

Kimberly Henderson Hedrick said, "It makes it really happy to see it take off and people still doing it" in Alabama. She won the Gulf Guardian Award in 2004 for Alabama's Shellfish Restoration Project, and is now a teacher in the Indiana farm town she grew up in.

Two highly lethal parasitic diseases and other problems plagued the Chesapeake Bay oysters. According to Chris Moore, senior ecosystem scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the declines in the second half the 1900s were followed by a more severe crash in 1920s due to rampant overharvesting.

Moore stated that gardeners from the foundation and its member organizations have added at most 15 million oysters to Maryland and 1,000,000 in Virginia.

Virginia's Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association members plant oysters for both eating and planting. Although Tidewater is unable to gather data on the reef contributions, Vic Spain, president emeritus, believes it to be at least 500,000 per year.

The Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, an umbrella group, has set a goal to add 10 billion oysters by 2025.

Spain sent an email saying, "Wish us luck. That's going to be tough."

Helene Hetrick, spokeswoman for the Billion Oyster project, stated that similar projects are being implemented by dozens of schools and community groups in New York Harbor. She said that the project doesn't call them oyster gardens because the oysters in the harbor are not safe to eat. The goal is restoration and not food.

Every week, oyster gardens are pulled from the water for about 10 days. This is to remove critters and keep oysters growing through the cage mesh. It also drys out and removes any algae or seaweed that may be growing on it.

Oysters can live for up to three years in the Chesapeake before they reach adulthood. They will spend about a year in raised cages.

P.J. said that it can take just four to five months for oysters to be ready to transplant in Mobile Bay or Mississippi. Waters, an Auburn University extension professor who oversees Alabama oyster gardening at Mississippi–Alabama Sea Grant, is Waters.

Colin Wood, one the two student interns at St. Stanislaus, said that he enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the job.

He said, "I didn’t realize oysters had such a huge impact on the environment."

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