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Fort Lauderdale's Polluted Waterways Need Help: Here Come The Oysters

Two men deploying oyster traps
Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel
Mike Lambrechts and Brock Pecknold with the Broward chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association deploying oyster traps on Wednesday March 4, 2020 in the 1700 block of Southeast 13th Street in Fort Lauderdale.

As broken sewage pipes foul Fort Lauderdale’s waterways, a group of conservationists has begun deploying one of the world’s most formidable filtration systems.

A single oyster can cleanse more than 50 gallons of water a day. Volunteers with Coastal Conservation Association, a recreational fishing and conservation group, have begun distributing 100 pizza-sized mini-reefs to waterfront homeowners that will provide places for oyster larvae to latch onto, reach adulthood and turn into an army of water cleaners.

Will the oysters turn out to be saltwater superheroes? Could a plucky team of bivalves save Fort Lauderdale’s waterways from years of official neglect?

Short answer: No. Not even close.

ALSO READ: Scientists 'Shocked' At Shrinking Size Of Colossal Oysters In Florida

No group of mollusks, no matter how determined, could filter the millions of gallons of sewage spewed from the city's broken pipes.

But the conservation group, which is working with a scientist affiliated with the University of Miami and NOAA, is trying to learn what areas of the city might be most favorable for oysters and then scale up the project to put an effective number of the small but potent mollusks into the water.

"I wouldn't look at it like it's going to solve all of our problems," said Michael Lambrechts, president of Coastal Conservation Association's Broward chapter. "The best case is that we are able to determine what areas are better for oyster growth and sustainability than others. Number two would be the rebuilding of oyster living shorelines in areas that used to have oysters and don't have them."

Ian Zink, a scientist who is advising the group, said the project will provide valuable information on salinity, temperature and the presence of oyster larvae that will reveal what areas are likely to be favorable for the growth of oysters. This will allow future, larger-scale projects to focus their efforts and create oyster banks that could improve water quality.

ALSO READ: Oyster Farmers Bring Back A Once Prominent Florida Industry

“Likely the pilot Broward project won’t make immediate changes to water quality in Fort Lauderdale waterways,” said Zink, a post-doctoral associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “From a practical point of view, there just won’t be enough oysters settled throughout these waterways to make short-term improvements in water quality. However, the Broward project will provide important information about the viability of local oyster populations that can be very useful for future scaled-up restoration efforts.”

To obtain food, oysters suck in water and filter suspended particles. Although they don’t exactly eat sewage, they consume particles that may be laden with bacteria, viruses and other contaminants. And as they eat plankton, they consume nutrients that could otherwise fertilize algae blooms. All of this improves water clarity and water quality.

There have been many oyster restoration projects around Florida and other states, where oysters are valued not just for water filtration but for building reefs that stabilize shorelines and provide habitat for fish and other creatures. And of course, they’re prized as the star ingredient of Oysters Rockefeller and other dishes.

In Fort Lauderdale, the plan calls for hanging the oyster catchers, or patties, off docks. The oyster catchers are manufactured by Sandbar Oyster Co. (motto: “Shellfishly motivated”), which says they’re biodegradable.

One question the conservation group hopes to answer is what species of oyster turns up most frequently.

ALSO READ: The Changing Seafood Industry In Florida

There’s the eastern oyster, the famous grapefruit-sized species that forms part of what the journalist H.L. Mencken called the “immense protein factory” of Chesapeake Bay. And there’s the slightly smaller mangrove oyster. Both can be found in South Florida, but Zink said his own research has found the mangrove oyster to be more abundant in areas he’s surveyed in Biscayne Bay.

The Fort Lauderdale oyster project had actually been in the works before the series of pipe breaks brought sewage and the wrong kind of international publicity to the city. Already suffering from contamination from fertilizers, grease and other contamination washed into the water, the waterways had long been in need of the special services provided by oysters.

“When the sewer breaks really started to come on strong, all of a sudden the people who didn’t know the condition of our waterways now understand now that they are in really bad shape,” Lambrechts said. “Not just because of the breaks but because they’ve been on a decline for years.”

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4535

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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