Oysters, a Manatee's Best Friend

Finished oyster mat ready to rebuild the reefs! 

So how does an oyster help a manatee survive?  Well, a single oyster probably doesnt do a darn thing to help out manatees or other animals.  But a reef of them can do a lot.

As filter feeders, oysters combat spikes in plankton populations that are tied to increased fertilizer runoff into the water.  Less plankton – and other particles – means higher clarity of the water and increased light reaching the sea bottom.  What depends upon clear water?  Manatee food.  Also known as – my favorite thing – seagrass

The oyster reefs found along the edges and northern shores of the Indian River Lagoon system have been in decline in recent years due to – strangely enough – wave action from increased boating in the area.  The waves actually break down the reef over time though the precise mechanism of this process isnt fully understood, yet.

The trouble with restoring this habitat is that baby oysters prefer to grow on the shells of older oysters.  This accounts for their ability to grow reefs, and provide a home for small fish and invertebrates, as well as provide food for other critters in the region including otters, raccoons, egrets, and larger fish. 

To circumvent this problem several conservation-oriented groups in central Florida have gotten together to build oyster mats.  The idea is to secure oyster shells to plastic mats which are replaced in the Lagoon in calm areas that can foster oyster reef growth. 

I spent quite a few hours the last few days at the Zoo making these mats.  Speaking from an intellectual point of view, it is immensely satisfying to be directly involved in a project that is going to be immediately used to better the aquatic world.  Speaking from the point of view of my fingers, its hard work!

Work in progress

The mats are very simple mesh grids, zip ties, and drilled oyster shells.  But it takes a lot of man hours to make the mats that will help restore oyster habitat. 

Interested in taking part?  The Brevard Zoo will continue to produce oyster mats through this weekend.  The Nature Conservancy, the University of Central Florida, NOAA and several others partners hold mat-making workshops throughout the year.  Contact their volunteer coordinators for more information. 

And, courtesy of my buddy Clare, here’s some manatee sugar for you to feast your eyes on.

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