In 2017 START received a generous grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to administer a partnership with The Manatee County Parks and Recreation Department, the Chiles Group of restaurants, the Gulf Coast Shellfish Institute and the University of Florida’s IFAS program to initiate a unique environmental project to help restore oyster reefs at Perico and Robinson Preserves. The program called GCORR, the initials of Gulf Coast Oyster Recycling and Renewal, is unique because it uses live oyster shells discarded from restaurants to create the substrata that oyster larvae need as a foundation to start a new reef. In contrast, the most common method to begin new oyster reefs is to use fossil shells dug up in the middle of the state. The GCORR method is more sustainable in twos ways. The used live oyster shells from the restaurants no longer go to landfills as bulky, pungent waste material and their use makes it unnecessary to scar the land by digging up more fossil shells.

Oysters are an important part of the marine ecosystem. Each one filters from nine to fifty gallons of water a day helping to remove unwanted nutrients and pollutants from our waterways. This improves water clarity and reduces the potential growth of unwanted algae. Oysters also serve an important role in the food chain for our local fish population.

Using funding from the grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, START administered the project for the other partners by purchasing bins for the restaurants to store the used live shells and a trailer to haul the shells from the restaurants to a storage area at Perico Preserve. START also helped to set up the storage and hauling activity with the Manatee County Parks and Recreation Department and the important research component with the Gulf Coast Shellfish Institute to monitor the progress on the reef.

Like any successful venture, people are usually the critical element in the equation and this project was fortunate to have a very strong base of volunteers. First and foremost are the employees at the three Chiles Group participating Restaurants, the Beach House, Mar Vista and The Sandbar. They dutifully collected the shells, cleaned them in the restaurants’ dishwashers, stored them in the holding bins and delivered the stored shells once or twice a week to a storage area at Perico Preserve. Employees from the Parks and Recreation Department stored the shells for curing and prepared them for delivery to the seeding area. In addition, as shown in the picture, they held a number of public educational briefings where they explained the importance of oysters in the marine environment and showed volunteers how to affix the shells to mats that would become the substrata for the new reef.

As the shell was delivered and positioned in the water to receive incoming oyster larvae, The Gulf Coast Shellfish Institute monitored the instillation and oversaw the development of the reef. One of the key elements of the project was the research component that tested the relative productivity of using the live shell from restaurants vs the productivity of the more commonly used fossil shells. Over and above the important sustainable environmental aspects of using live shell, we are very pleased to report that in the test period the live shell base produced 19% more new oysters than the fossil shells.

As a result of this very successful effort, START will continue to help support this program for the foreseeable future.

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