Volunteers raise oyster gardens to help restore reefs

Oyster_Gardening_58273 St. Stanislaus HIgh School oyster garden interns Dylan McShane, left, and Colin Wood, both 12th graders, walk down the school's pier toward its oyster garden in Bay St. Louis, Miss. on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. The school is among more than 50 locations in Mississippi and more than 1,000 nationwide -- most of them private docks -- where people are growing oysters in raised cages to help build build and restore reefs.
Oyster_Gardening_84265 A student at St. Stanislaus HIgh School in Bay St. Louis, Miss., measures a baby oyster on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 at the school's oyster garden. A good year would have filled wire cages hanging from the school's dock with fist-sized clumps of oysters. But fresh water from spring and summer downpours left the Mississippi Sound with salinity so low that many of the baby oysters were killed and survivors were small.
Oyster_Gardening_28294 Letha Boudreaux, left, who teaches marine biology at St. Stanislaus HIgh School in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and Rayne Palmer, who runs the state's oyster gardening program, walk down the school's long pier to its oyster garden on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. The school is among more than 50 locations in Mississippi and more than 1,000 nationwide -- most of them private docks -- where volunteers raise oysters to help restore coastal reefs.
Oyster_Gardening_41962 These two clumps of oysters, shown on Nov. 15, 2021, but gathered during a previous year, are typical of those usually collected from oyster gardens along Mississippi's coast to help restore coastal reefs. But spring and summer downpours along Mississippi's coast left students at St. Stanislaus HIgh School in Bay St. Louis, where this photo was taken, with only a few small juvenile oysters clinging to shells where many spat had originally attached themselves.
Oyster_Gardening_70595 This photo, provided by Dennis Hatfield of the Little Lagoon Preservation Society, shows Auburn University graduate students Rayne Palmer, left, and Conrad Horst with oysters collected on Oct. 27, 2021, to help restore Alabama's reefs. The oysters were grown at dozens of private docks along Little Lagoon. They're among more than a thousand sites nationwide where volunteers grow oysters to help restore dwindling reefs.
Oyster_Gardening_82993 St. Stanislaus HIgh School senior Dayton Hall measures a fingernail-sized baby oyster attached to a recycled shell at the school's oyster garden in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, as Christian Bourgeois prepares to take notes. The school is among more than 50 locations in Mississippi -- most of them private docks -- and more than 1,000 nationwide where volunteers raise oysters to help restore coastal reefs.
Oyster_Gardening_91461 St. Stanislaus HIgh SchooL senior Jackson Mountjoy pulls oyster shells out of a wire cage to check for baby oysters at the marine science program's oyster garden in Bay St. Louis, Miss. on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. The school is among more than 50 locations in Mississippi and more than 1,000 around the U.S. where volunteers raise oysters to help restore reefs.
Oyster_Gardening_41409 A mangrove snapper and a stone crab found in the oyster garden at St. Stanislaus HIgh School in Bay St. Louis, Miss., share a tank in the school marine biology lab on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. The school is among more than 50 locations in Mississippi and more than 1,000 nationwide where volunteers raise oysters to help restore reefs.
Oyster_Gardening_55343 Oyster garden interns Colin Wood, left, and Dylan McShane, seniors at St. Stanislaus HIgh School's pier in Bay St. Louis, Miss., head down the school's pier toward the oyster garden on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Behind them are seniors taking Marine Biology II. The school is among more than 50 locations -- most of them private docks -- and more than 1,000 nationwide where volunteers raise oysters to help restore reefs.
Oyster_Gardening_41385 St. Stanislaus HIgh School seniors Dayton Hall, left, and Jackson Mountjoy prepare to remove oyster shells from a wire cage to measure any baby oysters attached to them at the school's oyster garden in Bay St. Louis, Miss. on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. St. Stanislaus is among more than 50 locations in Mississippi and more than 1,000 along U.S. coasts where volunteers grow oysters to help restore reefs.
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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (AP) — It’s time to agitate the oysters at St. Stanislaus High School on Mississippi’s Gulf coast.

Students on a platform below the school’s long pier gently shake their oyster garden’s wire cages as they pull them from the water, loosening mud and algae that might keep water and nutrients from baby oysters clinging to those shells.

These students in Bay St. Louis are part of a volunteer force along U.S. coasts that’s raising oysters from translucent spat the width of a soda straw to hard-shelled bivalves that can help restore depleted reefs.

Oyster reefs are a keystone of coastal ecosystems. Each oyster filters 25 to 50 gallons (95 to 190 liters) of water a day. Spat glue themselves to larger oysters and grow. The reefs provide habitat for shrimp, crabs and fish and protect shorelines.

In Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama alone, there are more than 1,000 oyster gardens, most in wire cages hanging from private docks or open-topped floats tied to them.

Dennis Hatfield of Gulf Shores, Alabama, said he is struck each summer by the number of crabs, fish, shrimp, sponges and other animals he clears from his cages on Little Lagoon.

“I feel very positive we are creating habitat in the lagoon,” he said, adding that many of the 50,000 to 55,000 adult oysters grown there each year go to reefs in Mobile Bay.

In the 1950s, an average of 37,400 tons of oysters were taken annually from brackish waters nationwide. But overharvesting, pollution, parasites, smothering sediment and other problems saw U.S. oyster harvests fall 68% to about 11,900 tons a year in the 1990s, federal figures show.

Commercial farmers around the country grow oysters near the surface because they mature much faster where the water holds more of the plankton they eat and predators can be more easily removed.

Oyster gardening uses the same techniques on a smaller scale. But the oysters aren’t being grown for the half-shell or deep fryer.

It’s as much education as restoration, said Bob Stokes, director of the Galveston Bay Foundation in Texas. Volunteers become “engaged about caring about the bay they live on,” he said.

When the Little Lagoon oysters were collected, more than 20 big plastic “shrimp baskets” held clumps of oysters.

Big enough to spawn next spring, they’re now on reefs being restored for fishing or reserved to hold brood stock for future generations, with no harvest allowed.

In the Mississippi Sound, heavy rains through spring and summer were hard on baby oysters. Most shells in the cages set out in late June at St. Stanislaus held only silt in mid-November, and surviving juveniles were generally less than an inch long.

“When you find one with an oyster, put it aside so you don’t count them twice,” cautioned Rayne Palmer, an Auburn University graduate student who runs the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant’s gardening program in Mississippi.

Empty shells also go onto reefs, said Letha Boudreaux, head of the marine biology program at St. Stanislaus.

Oyster shells are the hard surface spat prefer, and entire artificial reefs are made from recycled shells. The Galveston Bay program puts mesh bags holding recycled shells into the water to attract spat and give them a head start.

Oyster gardening started in the late 1990s around the Chesapeake Bay, where harvests had plummeted 90% in two decades.

The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant’s oyster gardening program, modeled on the Chesapeake’s, started in Alabama in 2001 as master’s thesis research.

“It makes me really happy to see that it took off and people are still doing it” in Alabama, said Kimberly Henderson Hedrick, who won a Gulf Guardian Award in 2004 as head of Alabama’s Shellfish Restoration Project and now teaches in the Indiana farm town where she grew up.

The Chesapeake Bay oysters were beset by two highly lethal parasitic diseases, in addition to other problems. Declines in the second half of the 1900s followed an even more drastic crash in the 1920s from rampant overharvesting, said Chris Moore, senior ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Gardeners in the foundation and its member groups have added at least 15 million oysters in Maryland and 1 million in Virginia, Moore said.

Virginia’s Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association members grow oysters to eat as well as to plant. Tidewater hasn’t been able to collect data on reef contributions, but president emeritus Vic Spain thinks it’s probably at least 500,000 a year.

An umbrella group called the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance has set a goal of 10 billion added oysters by 2025.

“Wish us luck, that’s gonna be tough,” Spain wrote in an email.

Dozens of schools and community groups around New York Harbor have similar projects as part of the Billion Oyster Project, spokeswoman Helene Hetrick said in an email. The project does not call them “oyster gardens” because the harbor’s oysters are unsafe to eat and the goal is not food but restoration, she said.

Oyster gardens get pulled from the water every week to 10 days to clear out critters, keep oysters from growing through the cage mesh, and dry out and clean off algae and seaweed growing on the wire.

It can take oysters three to four years to reach adulthood in the Chesapeake, and a year to 18 months in raised cages.

In Mobile Bay and in Mississippi, it may take only four to five months to have oysters ready to transplant, said P.J. Waters, an Auburn University extension associate professor who oversees Alabama’s oyster gardening at Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant.

Colin Wood, one of two student interns who maintain the St. Stanislaus garden, collect data and supervise other students — not for pay but for a credit on their transcripts — said he was excited by the hands-on aspect.

“I didn’t realize oysters had a big impact on the environment,” he said.

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Follow Janet McConnaughey on Twitter: @JanetMcCinNO.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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