UPDATE: Group monitors artificial oyster reefs planted in Panama City

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ST. ANDREWS BAY, Fla. (WMBB) — The Central Panhandle Aquatic Preserve of the Florida Department of Environment Protection is making strides toward restoring oyster growth throughout the Panhandle.

Manager Jonathan Brucker and his team planted their own eco-friendly reefs in St. Andrews Bay, Apalachicola and Pensacola a couple years ago. We drove out to the Preserve to find out if those reefs are working.

“It’s a 10-year project where we’ve identified some oyster reefs in Apalachicola, St. Andrews and the Pensacola Bay systems that have become degraded, debilitated or even dormant where they used to be successful, productive reefs,” Brucker said. “So we’ve put down material that seems suitable for oysters to grow on to foster growth and to hopefully restore these oyster beds to historic conditions.”

Their work is funded by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which is a program aiding the Gulf Coast in restoration after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon, BP oil spill.

Water quality weighs in as a major impact on oyster depletion.

Brucker and his team are monitoring the new reefs’ sizes twice a year, and will continue observing throughout the project’s remaining eight years.

“The oysters that we’re finding there right now are very small,” he said. “And so sometimes it can take up to three years to get to that adult-sized, harvestable oyster. We’re seeing smaller-size oysters right now, but it’s expected. You know, the materials only been down for two years. And, you know, we expect there to be positive growth. We’ve seen that.”

If the project continues to go as planned, the team will foster nine oyster reefs back to health in St. Andrews Bay, 14 in Apalachicola and about 15 in Pensacola.

“In terms of the economy, it would be great. It would, you know, create jobs. It would provide food to the local restaurants in the community,” he said. “But in terms of the environment, to have that successful oyster bed is improving water quality. The oysters are phenomenal at filtering water. They also provide a critical habitat for so many other organisms: crabs, juvenile fish, other fish come to feed on there. So there’s lots of positive hope for this project to be a success for, you know, what it could be in the future. It could be great for the environment and great for the community.”

The team will go out for its third monitoring session within the next couple of months. It will mark the one-and-a-half year point of the 10-year project. And they’re hoping to find larger oysters. We’ll keep you updated on their study.

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