We were very pleased that the documentary film “Unfiltered” about the plight of oyster reefs around the world was selected for screening at the Sarasota Film Festival last week on April 29th. Produced by Chucha Barber and directed by Josh McLawhorn, “Unfiltered” shows the devastating impact of the loss of fresh water from the Georgia/Florida water wars on the oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay. Once the main source of oysters consumed in Florida and accounting for 10% of all oysters produced in the Country, the beds in Apalachicola Bay are now in deep decline.

In the course of telling this story and making a strong case for a major effort to restore our oyster reefs that have declined by 90% worldwide, a number of local people working on the START Gulf Coast Oyster Recycle and Renewal Program (GCORR) were featured in the film. This includes Robert Baugh with Oysters Rock, Damon Moore with Oyster River Ecology, Aedan Stockdale with Manatee County, Bob Tenhaaf from Waste Pro USA and START’s CEO, Sandy Gilbert.

Following the film, the audience was invited to a reception at the nearby Sarasota Garden Club arranged by Elizabeth Moore and catered by Chiles Hospitality and Oysters Rock with wine service by Tom Morgan’s Sea Grape. Some of the seafood offerings included both raw and cooked chipotle North West Florida oysters from Jeff Wren’s Rattlesnake Cove Oyster Company, a variety of East Coast oysters from Nicolette Mariano’s Treasure Cove Shellfish Company, clams from Aaron Welch’s Two Doc’s Shellfish Company and caviar from Jeff Sedecca’s Sterling Caviar. The chipotle grilled oysters and the caviar were especially popular. We want to thank Ed Chiles and John and Amanda Horne for generously providing such delicious seafood fair.

The Local Oyster Story

Because the film focused mostly on the situation at Apalachicola Bay, it is appropriate to remind our readers about how well our own local GCORR oyster program is progressing. It all began over five years ago when Robert Baugh and his son, Riley, lugged shell in a START trailer from diners at the three Chiles Hospitality restaurants, The Beach House, Mar Vista and The Sandbar, to Perico Preserve for curing and installation to restore local oyster beds. This is an important approach to improve the quality of our coastal waters because an adult oyster can filter from 20 to 50 gallons of seawater a day and they are resistant to red tide. Robert and Riley performed this arduous task for over a year when it was decided we should expand the program to include more restaurants to produce more shell for oyster restoration. Ed Chiles then contacted some other environmentally concerned restauranteurs who serve seafood and John Horne of the Anna Maria Oyster Bars and John Banyas of the Swordfish Grill responded to form Manatee County’s Shuck ‘N Save Restaurants.

With the major additional volume of restaurant shell, we created a partnership with Waste Pro USA in 2019 to cart the shell to a larger storage area at Robinson Preserve where Manatee County staff from the Natural Resources Department stored the shell for curing until it was ready for installation. Volunteers were then engaged to bag the shell so it could be transported to reef locations and stacked to attract new oyster spat. Over the years since then, the GCORR program has annually kept about 40 tons of restaurant shell out of our landfills as garbage and used it instead to restore oyster beds at Perico and Robinson Preserve. The “fresh” shell from restaurants also has produced 23% more new oyster spat than the fossil shell dug up out east that has traditionally been used to restore oyster reefs.

New Direction

GCORR has been managed by START since its inception, but with the award of a major $950,000 grant to the Manatee County Department of Natural Resources from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for oyster and clam restoration and research, the program will move in a new direction. The new site for oyster restoration will be the remaining oyster beds along the Manatee River. This will help protect the river’s banks from erosion from storm surge and rising sea levels from climate change and the oysters will help filter out excess nutrients before the river flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The growing volume of collected shell will now be stored by the County at a new site at Geraldson Farm. Coordination with the restaurants and Waste Pro USA and the important new research function will now be handled by Manatee County with its larger staff as assisted by the scientists at the Gulf Shellfish Institute with the research element. START will still remain a communication partner with the County by providing updates on the project as it unfolds in the next three years in our monthly E-Newsletters and with the creation of “The Oyster River” a new educational PowerPoint presentation that tells the story of this important water quality project.

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