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Military-Civilian Partnership Brings New Oyster Reef to Northwest Florida

The air reverberated with clinking noises and the whoosh of oyster shells sliding off giant piles into waiting buckets. Volunteers, Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) staff and their AmeriCorps team gathered the shells in mesh bags, slowly building another mound of new reef material. As they worked, a truck pulled in with even more shells, collected from nearby restaurants as part of CBA’s shell recycling program. It was reef building time.

The oyster shells were destined for Alaqua Bayou as part of a 1,700-foot reef to protect the shoreline from erosion and provide wildlife habitat. Tweet this The reef would rest within Eglin Air Force Base Reservation property, and Eglin airmen had come to help with the build.

Rachel Gwin, Restoration Coordinator for CBA, is in charge of the effort. “The part of the project that is most interesting to me is being able to form new working partnership with Eglin Air Force Base,” Gwin says, “They own much of the existing large stretches of undeveloped shoreline property, so it is exciting to be able to collaborate on a project this size. As an added bonus, it is quite peaceful at the site.”

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Bagging recycled oyster shells in preparation for reef building.

Historically, Choctawhatchee Bay provided habitat for so many oysters that they could be harvested commercially. Unfortunately, shells were mined from the bay for use in agriculture and road building, which disrupted the oyster life cycle. New oyster larvae, also called spat, had less hard material to attach to and thrive on, so populations declined. By building oyster reefs, CBA is restoring critical habitat for oysters and other wildlife.

Shantelle Dedicke of the Francis Roy Agency explains why she and her staff member decided to volunteer with CBA: “We believe in sustainable tourism, and that the conservation and preservation of our natural environment is vital to the ‘thrivability’ of the destinations we promote.”Tweet this.

Enough shells for the afternoon construction had been gathered in bags, and the reef builders formed a line to load the shells onto a truck. Once at the site, they formed the same line to move the shells to the edge of the bayou.

The water reflected a cloudy sky, flat and calm until a mullet fish leapt into the air and then hit the water with a splash. Forest lined the sandy shore, and an osprey flew across the bay before landing on a nearby bare branch. It was a picturesque spot, representative of the beautiful ecosystems within the Florida Panhandle.

Erosion is a big problem here as waves crash against the bank and strip away its sediment. The new oyster reef structure breaks that wave energy, allowing marsh grasses and shoreline to return.Tweet this Little fish will hide in small crevices between the reef bags, while crustaceans can take cover and birds can rest on its dry top.

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Oyster shells ready to be bagged.

Gwin carefully marked the contours of the future reef and, one by one, the bags were placed along the bayou’s bottom. Over the next few months, volunteers and staff would build out all 1,700 linear feet, creating pyramid-shaped sections with wide bottoms and pointed tops jutting six inches out of the water at mean high tide. It’s the biggest reef CBA has built to date, an initiative that would have been impossible without CBA’s community partners. With every bag, every oyster shell, they are taking an important step in the restoration of Choctawhatchee Bay.

Coming up, CBA has more oyster reef projects in the works, including homeowner sites and additional Eglin Air Force Base initiatives. To learn more, click here.

Note: Author works for CBA. Photos are under copyright protection and cannot be used or reproduced without permission.

For more biodiversity and conservation stories from Erika Zambello, visit VoicesforBiodiversity.org.

 Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.

In addition to acting as the sole blogger for the entire Florida State Park system, she is a regular contributor to the Duke Nicholas School, the Maine Sportsman, Bangor Daily News, and 10000 Birds. In the past she has written for The Conservation Fund, the Triangle Land Conservancy, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, BirdWatching Daily, and the Florida Sportsman. Finally, she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.

Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, @a_day_in_the_landscape or zambellophotography.com.