Dr. Peter Frederick navigates his airboat into the Lone Cabbage Oyster Reef off the coast of Cedar Key and starts counting birds.
“One, two, three,” he says out loud and points at what he estimates are more than 90 oystercatchers wading along the 3-mile-long structure.
The locals call these black, gray and white birds with long bright red beaks “oyster ravens” and these birds are a welcomed sight to Frederick, a research professor for the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida, and to Leslie Sturmer, Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Extension Agent also on the airboat. They are both getting their first look at the reef one year after their project began, and the presence of these odd-looking birds means there are oysters to feed on.
It’s a good first sign that the limestone rocks strategically placed on the reef footprint a year ago are doing their job.
Scientists officially opened the approximately 8 acres of restored reef with a ribbon cutting ceremony back in December of 2018, and more than a year later, they are able to start monitoring and tracking oyster growth.
The project began in 2011 with the construction of experimental reefs and from studies on those approaches, the Lone Cabbage Oyster Reef was designed and built back to its historic footprint and elevation using limerock boulders as a base with a topping of shell. With the increased length and height of the reef, scientists expected the current gaps to decrease in size and make the reef more resilient to the fluctuation of freshwater discharge and sea level rise.
According to the background information from the project website wec.ifas.ufl.edu/oysterproject, “Research that shows that since the early 1980s oyster reefs in the Big Bend region have declined by 66 percent with the largest losses (88 percent) occurring in offshore and near-shore oyster bars that parallel the coastline. Reef chains have become shorter, the gaps between reefs wider, and the elevations are declining by several inches per year. Once the degrading reefs lose their covering of oyster shells through erosion and burying, they become unstable sandbars where oysters cannot recolonize.”
The $6.8 million project was funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation using the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, one of the pots of money that comes from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. It was in April, 2010, that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast killing 11 people and setting off the spill known as the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history dumping 200 million gallons of crude into the ocean. That spill continues to affect waters and land linked to the Gulf such as Cedar Key.
According to UF scientists, the Big Bend of Florida which includes the Lone Cabbage Oyster Reef complex, is the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental U.S. It supports natural resources that drive the local economy and estuaries along the coast owe their productivity to the fresh water provided by rivers. Oyster reefs also break storm waves and protect valuable marsh and coastal forests.
Once the reef was rebuilt and given time to attract oysters, scientists have now entered the monitoring phase of the project. On Feb. 11, Frederick and Sturmer took a fieldtrip out to the reef to do just that.
“This place is made to grow oysters,” Frederick said making note of the rapid current going through the channel. “They want a lot of water flowing over them fast.”
He picked up a large oyster. “This is what oysters are supposed to look like,” he said. “But we fish them so hard around here they don’t reach that size.”
Frederick said the monitoring phase of the project, which will last until 2025, has proven to be a challenge. “We are searching for a technique to evaluate oyster reefs,” he said. “We tried using drones,” he said referring to the surveying method called lidar which measures elevation.
With research personnel doing regular oyster counts, Frederick said, “We’re doing a little better than we expected.
“What I wanted was oysters growing all over the reef and growing not just on the shell but on the rock as well,” Frederick explained. “Those things are happening. The density is exceeding my expectations and the growth rate is exceeding my expectations.”
According to Sturmer, the research team is continuously monitoring not only the oyster count but is testing the reef salinity levels twice a month.
“The thing we don’t know yet is whether or not the reef is actually impounding fresh water and making the bay less saline,” Frederick said. “Unless you can account for the river flow, you don’t know.”
For now, Frederick said he is encouraged by what he sees just a year after the reconstruction of the reef.
“We are in a maintenance mode trying to see how good the oysters are going to get and whether our salinity predictions come true,” he said. “To decrease salinities in the bay makes life better for oysters, and a lot of other things that live in the estuary.”
For more info on the project visit: www.wec.ufl.edu/oysterproject/