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Marine Extension Service program recycles oyster shells to rebuild oyster reefs on the coast

Oysters are important to Georgia’s coastal waters for many reasons besides the fall oyster roast on the beach. Oyster reefs attract other commercially useful marine life such as crabs and fish, they filter algae and pollution from the water and they protect against shoreline erosion. Unfortunately, the popularity of oysters as food has jeopardized oyster reefs in the intertidal waters of Georgia’s coast.

Oyster larvae must attach themselves to hard surfaces-preferably other oyster shells-in order to grow into adult oysters, but the removal of large quantities of oysters for canning as far back as the 1890s, in addition to recent disease and declining water and habitat quality, have greatly reduced Georgia’s once-abundant oyster populations. Although oystermen were required to return a small percentage of the shell they harvested, Georgia’s oyster reefs were decimated.

Then UGA’s Marine Extension Service stepped in. Under the project name GEORGIA, educators and researchers on Skidaway and Tybee Islands are establishing what should become a perpetual oyster shell recycling program to rebuild oyster reefs on the coast.

The shell recycling program, known formally as “Generating Enhanced Oyster Reefs in Georgia’s Inshore Areas,” began in September 2003, when the program received funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Ocean Trust and the National Fisheries Institute. The first of its kind in Georgia, it is modeled after a successful South Carolina program started in 2001. Alan Power, research scientist at UGA’s Shellfish Research Laboratory, is the GEORGIA project manager, and working with him are Dodie Sanders, a faculty member with the Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway, and Mary Sweeney-Reeves, a faculty member in the shellfish laboratory. The program was begun on Skidaway Island because of the visibility and resources of the Marine Education Center and Aquarium, which reaches about 12,000 visitors each year.

“This program has a two-pronged approach,” says Sanders. “The first part is to support ongoing oyster enhancement programs that ultimately establish ecologically sustainable reefs along the coast of Georgia. The second part is to create action-based conservation programs for the community.”

Volunteers bag oyster shell and set it out in appropriate areas to begin rebuilding oyster reefs. Community partners include the Tybee Island 4-H Center and the Chatham County Metropolitan Planning Commission, but volunteers have come from as far away as New York, and all events are open to the public. Two bagging events and one reef-building event have been held so far this year, with four more reef-building days planned, and more than 30 volunteers have donated their time and muscles to providing new homes for oyster spat-larvae-on Skidaway and Tybee islands.

Gene Meredith, a volunteer from Savannah, learned about the program in an article in the local paper. “I started out just collecting shell from restaurants. Before we actually did the bagging, we had a lecture about the history of oyster fishing, oyster biology and what the project would entail,” Meredith says. “I didn’t realize until then how prevalent oysters used to be-they were even more abundant than I remembered from growing up here.”

Enhancement of the reefs is most effective when done before the spawning season begins in April. Sanders says volunteers typically spend three to four hours on Saturdays putting out bagged oyster shell during low tide.

Before the shell can be bagged, however, it must be collected from restaurants and private roasts and cured for at least three months so that any remaining tissue or associated organisms can decompose. According to Power, it is illegal to dump shells directly into waterways, since this puts the existing marine environment at risk for diseases and non-native organisms. Many oysters now come from the Gulf region and other states, and can possess pathogens not found locally. Most of the shell comes during the oyster roast season from October through April. Shell also is collected from participating restaurants throughout the year, and more than 300 bushels of shell have been collected and cured to date.

One of the longest-running participating restaurants is the Oyster Bar on Wilmington Island, just north of Skidaway. General manager Marty Susie says the restaurant recycles everything that it can. “And of course, we use a lot of oysters,” she says.

After reading about the program in the newspaper, she called for more information. “I thought it would be beneficial because we could help UGA with its program and it would mean less waste for us,” she says. “They brought us bins to collect the shell, and they pick them up once a week. They’ve made it very user-friendly and hassle-free.”

Water monitoring at the reef-building sites is an important component in measuring the success of the program. Volunteers are trained to measure the temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and sedimentation rates for the water, as well as the recruitment rate, growth and mortality of oysters at each of five sites. Monthly testing requires about two to three hours of volunteers’ time.

The overarching goal of the project, according to Sanders, is to establish other shell recycling programs along the coast of Georgia. By getting the communities involved, the program has great potential for sustainability; local people get to see first-hand the results of their hard work.