I love oysters. Raw, roasted, doesn’t matter. If they’re on the menu, I order a batch.
Truth be told, I never really knew — or cared – what happened to the shells. A recent visit to the Florida Oceanographic Society’s Coastal Center changed my perspective when I saw clusters of shells sorted into piles next to a few outdoor tables.
Turns out, the shells come from local restaurants. Instead of shoveling the leftovers into a dumpster and a landfill, the scads of shells are recycled by the FOS staff and volunteers — from the table back to the sea.
It’s part of an oyster restoration project that’s designed to neutralize the damage from assorted pollution and freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee that have gradually eroded the habitat of the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon.
Oysters are a good barometer of aquatic health. They cleanse — one oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day — they yield habitat for more than 300 species and they provide shoreline stabilization, which prevents erosion.
In the 1930s, the St. Lucie Estuary was said to be covered with oysters. Conservative estimates assess an 80 percent loss of that habitat since then.
What little terrain that’s left has been improved from conservation groups such as the FOS, which usually schedules one oyster restoration workday every month.
But the work starts well before dozens of volunteers line up to hoist bags of shells into the water. Twice a week, the FOS picks up shells from Martin County restaurants. Among those who contribute their leftovers are Spoto’s and Conchy Joe’s.
Once the shells are gathered, they’re brought to the FOS Coastal Center where they’re allowed to dry for at least three months. Once dry, they’re bagged and ready for the water.
The bags of shells, which typically weigh about 10 pounds, are loaded on to a truck in preparation for a workday. Each workday, FOS staff and volunteers of all ages form a line and pass the bags from the shore to the water. A half day’s labor can produce an implementation of at least 300 bags, more depending on the number of volunteers.
Every year more than 12 tons of shells are back in the water, not in the local dump. So far the FOS has cobbled together nearly 10,000 feet of reef at eight sites.
Each reef serves as a foundation for colonization, giving juvenile oysters a chance to grow. The hope, obviously, is that they will thrive enough that our murky waters will begin to cleanse and clear.