In the early 1800’s the Manatee River was called the Oyster River because of the many oyster reefs lining its shores. Many of the visitors in that era remarked about the impressive density of our oyster reefs. Over the years, however, harvesting for restaurants, dredging to improve navigation and ultimately dredging to provide fill for road beds eradicated over 90 % of the oysters along the Sun Coast.
Restoring our local oyster population is a top environmental priority because of the critical role they play in improving water quality and supporting other species. One mature oyster can filter from 9 to 50 gallons of seawater every day. That helps remove nitrogen and phosphorus that clouds the water column and can feed red tide and other harmful algae blooms (HABS). Clearer water allows more sunlight to penetrate the surface helping to grow more and healthier seagrass, another key species for improving water quality.
Oysters are called “environmental engineers” because their reefs provide habitat for other sea life like crabs and shrimp that attract many species of game fish. Their reef structure helps prevent shoreline erosion which reduces the nutrients entering the waterways. Oyster reefs also naturally grow in relative height to match sea level rise that can result from climate change.
Given oysters’ important multi-faceted role in our marine environment, START helped launch the Gulf Coast Oyster Recycling and Renewal (GCORR) program in 2017 to bring back this vital species to our waterways. Other organizations joining START in the partnership included Chiles Hospitality, the Manatee County Department of Natural Resources, the Gulf Shellfish Institute and the University of Florida IFAS/Sea Grant program.
The restoration model adopted by the GCORR Partnership was provided by Robert Baugh of Chiles Hospitality based on his experience with an oyster restoration program with restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. Used oyster shell from diners was saved by the restaurants, collected by a garbage carting company and stored in a holding area for the shell to cure before being placed in the water to form the structure for a new oyster reef.
Our GCORR Program began with just the three Chiles Hospitality participants, The Beach House, Mar Vista Restaurant and Dockside Pub and The Sandbar. With a grant of $5,000 from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, we were able to buy a trailer to pick up the shell from the restaurants and take it to a storage area donated by Manatee County at nearby Perico Preserve. The hauling of the shell was done by Robert Baugh, his son Riley, and other Chiles Hospitality volunteers. Over the course of a year, Robert and his team kept 30 tons of restaurant shell out of the landfill as garbage and stockpiled it at the storage area to build new oyster reefs. Monitoring the results of the program, the Gulf Shellfish Institute determined that the “Fresh” restaurant shell produced 23% more new oyster spat than the quarried fossil shell commonly used for oyster restoration projects.
With our goal to expand this successful restoration program to more restaurants, START was able to negotiate a favorably priced carting contract with Waste Pro USA. With professional carting available, Chiles Hospitality was able to interest five other environmentally motivated restaurants to join the GCORR Partnership. The eight shell-saving restaurant program is called Shuck ‘N Save and we encourage you to patronize these participating restaurants whenever you can:
The restaurants in alphabetical order are:
- Anna Maria Oyster Bar at 6906 14th Street West in Bradenton
- Anna Maria Oyster Bar at 6696 Cortez Road in Bradenton
- Anna Maria Oyster Bar at 200 Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach
- Anna Maria Oyster Bar at 1525 51st Avenue East in Ellenton
- The Beach House at 200 Gulf Drive North in Bradenton Beach
- Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant at 760 Broadway Street on Longboat Key
- The Sandbar at 100 Spring Street on Anna Maria Island
- The Swordfish Grill at 4628 119th Street in Cortez
Waste Pro USA picks up the shell from the Shuck ‘N Save restaurants and takes it to a Manatee County storage area for curing This process keeps 40 tons of shell a year out of our landfills as garbage and uses it instead to build a base for new oyster beds at Perico and Robinson Preserves.
Thanks to an exciting new $950,000 grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Manatee County will now take over the GCORR Program and focus on building new oyster reefs in strategic locations along the Manatee River. Back in in the early 1800’s, the river was known as the Oyster River. The restored oyster reefs along the river will help protect the shoreline from erosion from storm surge in hurricanes, bolster the banks against sea rise from climate change and filter excess nutrients in the river before it runs out into the Gulf.
Stay tuned for periodic updates on this major new three-year environmental project in START’s monthly E-Newsletters and look for an upcoming new educational PowerPoint presentation, “The Oyster River” relating the importance of oysters in our coastal waters and the history behind this innovative restoration project.