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A year-long experiment to increase oyster populations in Cedar Key that have died off because of reduced fresh water from the Suwannee River is slated to begin in March, according to scientists with the University of Florida.
The project, according to UF research Professor Peter Frederick, involves constructing artificial reefs at seven sites within the Suwannee Sound. The sites, in and near Lone Cabbage Reef and the north end of Deer Island, will be constructed closer to the mouth of the river than were historical sites—some possibly thousands of years old—in an attempt to capitalize on what little fresh water is still available.
“We have very much been seeing a reduction in fresh water,” Frederick said about the boost in salinity in the Gulf that has caused a spike in disease and predation on oysters. Frederick said that over the last several decades, oyster numbers in the area have declined by 66 percent. The lack of fresh water is not because of drought, he said. “We’re using more of it. That’s the simple issue.” And it’s a situation that Frederick said is not likely to change.
Despite die offs in the region, the Gulf is one of the last strongholds for oysters. Worldwide, populations several years ago had dwindled by as much as 85 percent, making oyster reefs the most impacted marine environments on Earth.
“As a global resource, the Gulf is very important,” Frederick said.
Leslie Sturmer, an extension agent with UF’s shellfish aquaculture program, said the project, though experimental, has some basis in success.
The reefs are to be built from leftover clam bags, something Sturmer said was done a few years ago with about 4,000 storm-wrecked clam bags at Atsena Otie key.
“It’s a viable shelf,” Sturmer said of the Atsena Otie project, “and it was made out of damaged clam gear.”
The new reefs, using the same types of discarded clam bags as anchoring points for oyster larvae, or spat, will be formed into squares measuring 70 feet by 70 feet. The Nature Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are paying for about $70,000 of the project, and an in-kind match in the form of clam bags and hours from the research team is paying for the rest, according to Frederick.
Sturmer said the project has a lot of support.
“We were all very concerned about the decline of the offshore reefs,” she said, but the community came in, “and they became engaged. Now, they’re going to test this in sort of an experimental design. So, yeah, it’s very much supported …”