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Oyster Reefs Sprout in Tampa Bay - With a Little Help

The health of Tampa Bay has been on the rebound in recent years. But there's still a lot to be done to bring back the natural fisheries. So groups of volunteers are spending their mornings helping to create oyster reefs in an offshore nature preserve near Riverview.

I'm standing in the parking lot at Williams Park. A group of high school students are shoveling oyster shells into tubes that will be used to create oyster beds in the bay. We're in the shadow of U.S. 41, trucks are rumbling by, and on the other side toward the bay, you can see plumes of smoke come out from several phosphate processing plants. We're in the shadow of several gypsum stacks looming in the distance. So this isn't what you call your pristine spot.

The mission of the non-profit group Tampa Bay Watch this day is simple: shovel 14 tons of oyster shells into PVC tubes, bag them and transport them six miles to an island in the middle of Tampa Bay. There, living oysters will attach themselves to the shells and naturally filter the bay water.


Today, they're getting some help. A busload of students from Tampa's King High School rumbles into the parking lot, bringing a lot of eager young hands who are ready to whittle down the 14-ton mountain. Tampa Bay Watch habitat restoration director Serra Herndon gives them a few tips.

"It's a great project, we really appreciate you guys helping out," she shouts out to the group. "We can show you what to do, we are limited by the number of PVC tubes that we have and shovels, so you're going to have to find a niche, find a job, rotate in and out, pair up, work in groups..."

Also giving the kids a few tips is Betsy Ilfeld.

"You take the oyster shells and you put them inside one of these tubes that has a bag over it. You turn it over, pull the tube out, and you have your container of oysters and you tie the end," she explains.

This repetitive work is seemingly endless this gray morning. They haul the bags to a boat at a dock at the end of the parking lot, where it will be taken to a nature preserve in the middle of Tampa Bay.

Ilfeld says they're encasing the shells in sturdy webbing because otherwise, waves from storms will just scatter the oysters on the bottom of the bay.

"Because when they tried tried laying them down loose, they found out the storms came over and flattened them. So they had very little value in terms of wave attenuation and collecting sediment," she says. "So then they went to this method. So if you have a (Hurricane) Charley or a Frances or a Jeanne or a Wilma, it all stays in one place - where they want it to be."

They're going to the Shultz Nature Preserve, just offshore of TECO's Big Bend power plant. Its final destination is the colorfully-named Whiskey Stump Key.

"You brought a jug of money, left it on a stump during Prohibition, and lo and behold, your money disappeared and whiskey showed up," Ilfeld says. "Must have been magic. Our government couldn't figure out how to stop it."

The whiskey runners are long gone, replaced by boaters like Josh Lundy.

Lundy pulls up a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission flat-bottomed skiff to the dock. He's loading up the shells to bring them out to Whiskey Stump Key. Today, he'll make the 12-mile roundtrip four times.

He says as many as 130 bags can fit into the boat. And at  30 to 40 pounds a bag, the boat could be hauling anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 pounds.  And he explains how oysters breed and grow on oyster shells.

"They take the calcium from these shells, and they use to to grow their own shells. And by doing that, they make the oyster bar bigger and stronger," he says. "(Oysters) are pretty important. They clean the water - they're filter feeders. So any of the small particulates that are in the water from fish, birds, us, they filter out."

That natural cleaning of the bay is the reason why people like Ilfeld are volunteering their mornings in this dock parking lot.

"Because over 15 or 20 years, you've seen the bay improve," she says. "And you know it's not the crappy green it used to be. They had to stop dumping our sewage it, but you come back five years later or 10 years later and you see this stuff is actually growing and it actually works."

And people like Ilfeld will keep volunteering their time to hack away at a mountain of fossilized oyster shells, because they feel it will make a difference.

The volunteers with Tampa Bay Watch will be back at the Williams Park site in early December.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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