Oysters in Northeast Florida
There’s something strangely therapeutic about putting on an oversized glove, pulling out an oyster knife and shucking a freshly roasted oyster. Whether sucking and devouring these slimy gems leaves you feeling starved for more or skittish at the mere thought of such a feat, one can’t argue the benefit of oysters — both to the health of our waterways and the ecosystem.
Though small in stature, these plump filter feeders can individually clean up to 50 gallons of water per day — removing dirt, pollution and algae from our waterways.
Here in Northeast Florida, there’s an abundance of oysters, yet more beds are closed than open, and a lack of water quality monitoring suggests this isn’t going to change overnight. Thanks to concerns raised by oyster harvesters and a local research institution, monitoring efforts are seeking to address the status and sustainability of oysters in our region.
FEAST OR FAMINE?
Recent media headlines have suggested the South, specifically along the East Coast, could become its own Napa Valley for oysters — a mecca of uncharted territory that has long been sleeping.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the St. Augustine region is second to Apalachicola for the commercial harvest of oysters in Florida. The region produces about 10 percent of Apalachicola’s output; however, both awareness of the volume of our oysters and funding available to support and expand the industry is lacking.
“I think the fact that we are second in the state, and Apalachicola has been on the decline, really speaks to the importance of us understanding our oysters,” said Nikki Dix, research director at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM Research Reserve).
Oyster harvesters have come to GTM Research Reserve in recent years with concerns of shrinking harvest areas and the long-term sustainability of local populations. One key area of the facility’s research focuses on these issues.
In addition to launching a Water Quality and Oyster task force, GTM Research Reserve is working on a grant-funded Oyster Condition Assessment Project. This project spans multiple counties in Northeast Florida: Nassau, Duval, Flagler and St. Johns, and extends up through Georgia. Data collected includes number of oysters on a reef, average oyster size, height and elevation of reef and animals associated with the reefs.
“We know there is an interest in answering questions like, ‘What is the health of oysters in our area?’ We are trying to determine where the gaps are and what we need to monitor to figure out answers,” said Andrea Noel, Northeast Florida aquatic preserve manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
STRAIGHT FROM AN OYSTERER’S MOUTH
One harvester has been spurring on this conversation and GTM Research Reserve’s work — Frank Usina, owner of Aunt Kate’s and The Reef. Usina has a rich history with oysters. His grandparents are known for being the first to serve oysters to Henry Flagler and his buddies in 1900 in St. Augustine.
“My oldest memories would be daddy walking down the river shore, taking an oyster knife out of his pocket, picking up an oyster, opening it and eating it,” said Usina.
During his own time of oystering and years spent growing up on North Beach, Usina has witnessed a great change to the landscape. For one, watercraft now can be more disruptive to oyster beds. “It was a different world back then. There were a whole lot fewer people and a whole lot greater availability,” he said.
“People aren’t always that concerned with the effect their wake has,” Usina said. “This increased power disrupts the oyster beds.”
States like Virginia are taking steps to work the beds and help oysters spawn and rebuild, but Usina considers support for a commercial industry being overlooked by the state. “It’s only recently the state’s shown an interest in Apalachicola,” he said. “There’s no real effort to maintain and extend the beds here.”
OPEN OR CLOSED FOR BUSINESS
The bulk of the area open for harvest pales in comparison to the scope of our region’s waterways.
The two open areas are concentrated within Salt Run, the Matanzas River and pockets of the Tolomato River. All areas within Nassau and Duval counties are closed year-round for both commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting and anyone found harvesting is subject to fines.
Our creeks remain an untapped territory. “We have a tremendous amount of oysters in the creeks. To my knowledge, there’s not a single creek that’s open,” said Usina.
“There are some regions that are never going to be open. Some used to be open and are now restricted. And then there are some that have been open for decades,” affirmed Dix. “There are more oysters outside of the harvest area instead of inside, which is what you would expect.”
Salt Run is open and repeatedly harvested, yet never ceases to produce.
“Almost any decent low tide you’re going to find three or four commercial boats in there with two or three people from each boat who probably want to get four, five or six bushels a piece,” Usina said. “I don’t have any idea of how many thousands of bushels come out of that small area every year. I’ve been very surprised Salt Run has held up with the level of oystering for the past few years.”
Meanwhile, up on the Tolomato River, gazing from the dock of Aunt Kate’s, Usina points to spots on the river packed with oysters. Though portions of the river are open, these are not, despite being the same water.
The decision to open a bed is based on water quality and bacteria levels, all in relation to a human health threat, rather than a threat to the oyster itself. For most areas, it’s not an issue of poor water quality, but the absence of water testing.
“We have the same open and closed areas we’ve had for years. There won’t be any change in that unless there’s an ongoing monitoring effort to monitor the water,” Usina said.
Dix notes that the water is flush, with two inlets in the estuary. “We don’t get low-oxygen events like in other areas, and we don’t get big phytoplankton blooms that harm the oyster reefs either.”
WORKING AND REBUILDING
Sustainable harvesting is another component of the GTM Research Reserve’s work.
“We’ve gotten too good at harvesting everything,” said Usina, referring to the lack of interest in leaving the smaller oysters on the beds, or returning the shells to sea. “Oysters spawn in the spring. When the seed sinks, it has to have something to attach to,” he said.
Returning the shells, which allows oyster larvae to settle and rebuild, is practiced elsewhere, but currently is not mandated here.
What is being done, and led by the GTM Research Reserve, is a shell recycle program called Bag and Build. This program retrieves shells from local restaurants, including Aunt Kate’s, and places them in areas absent of, but conducive to reefs, in an effort to rebuild. The program enables consumers to give back what was taken.
“We go to local restaurants and pick up oyster shells that people have eaten oysters off of,” Noel said. “We keep them here for a certain amount of time. Then we allow people to come in and fill bags with oyster shells. We take them out to sites and build artificial reefs with them.”
Since launching the program in 2012, Bag and Build has collected and recycled more than 200,000 pounds of shells. “This is part of our stewardship program too because we want the public to understand the importance of recycling and putting the shell back in the water to create a new habitat for oysters,” said Noel.
Beyond returning the shells to our waterways, Usina suggests manually working beds is needed for further growth and prosperity of the beds currently open for harvesting.
To achieve any change to the local oyster landscape, Usina says citizen advocacy is needed to drive state funding and interest in our region’s oyster industry.
“It would be nice to get interest in oystering at the state level,” he said. “If there’s not enough interest at the state level to put money into it then you’re spinning your wheels.”
The next time you are enjoying oysters on the half-shell, consider the role these small bivalve mollusks play in the health of our local waters, and the importance of keeping the waterways healthy for the sake of their – and our – survival.
If you're interested in volunteering for oyster monitoring projects, the Bag and Build program or other conservation-focused opportunities led by GTM Research Reserve, visit their website at www.gtmnerr.org/volunteer.