Tampa Bay Watch installs oyster domes along Bayshore in Tampa

12/07/10 Kate Bradshaw
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For many people, the mention of oysters invokes one two things: expensive jewelry and the edible mollusk’s supposed aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps lesser known is their ability to clean the water where they dwell. Today, a local environmental nonprofit is working to harness that power.

It’s a bitter-cold morning along Tampa’s upscale Bayshore Boulevard. A handful of men in knee-high rubber waders stand in the low tide, guiding coffee-table-sized cement domes into the muck that lines the seawall. From a flatbed truck, a crane hoists the domes down to them four at a time. The domes are ridden with paper plate-sized holes. Chris Sutton, an environmental scientist with Tampa Bay Watch, says the domes are for attracting a certain population that once thrived here.

"Today we're installing concrete oyster domes, the original names are reef balls, we're putting them along the Bayshore Boulevard seawall to promote oyster growth and also provide habitat for many different species."

Sutton says shoreline development, mangrove removal and the building of seawalls have made this stretch of Tampa Bay’s shoreline not very hospitable to the bivalve creatures. In fact, he says, oyster colonies are nonexistent along this stretch.

"Back in the day when they did a lot of the dredge and fill activities they removed a lot of that hard bottomed habitat, which they removed a lot of the oyster communities so we're basically putting that hard bottomed habitat back out there so oysters will eventually attach and eventually grow."

In addition to the Bayshore project, Tampa Bay Watch is installing these domes along the shoreline at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base. So why the emphasis on growing oysters in particular?

"One oyster ... can filter up to 10 gallons of water per hour. They also provide a food source for many different species and a nice low tide like we have right now where the sediment's completely exposed you'll have a lot of wading and shore birds that walk this shoreline and forage in the areas around the oyster domes and around the oysters and also eat the some of the oysters."

Sutton adds that the domes will attract little sea creatures trying to hide from predators and cause sediment to accumulate along the seawall.

"A lot of the smaller species, the crustaceans and crabs and smaller fish can actually hide out from the larger fish inside these domes and eventually grow and mature. They also hopefully will build sediment up between the seawall and the domes which will eventually expand the life of the seawall and of course the city and the other citizens in the community will like that so they aren't spending a lot more money in taxpayer dollars on rebuilding the seawall. And of course it makes the fishing better and it makes our bay much cleaner."

Tampa Bay Watch staff and several volunteers gathered early in the morning despite the thermometer reading well south of fifty Fahrenheit. Kevin Klare lives on nearby Davis Islands, and works from home. He says the project is a not only a proximally convenient way to lend a hand, but it’s also a way to help clean the bay.

"What brings me out today? I like to volunteer to this group just because of what they do for the environment. You got the whole oyster project thing, how it cleans up the water. We're never going to stop polluting it so we've got to do something to clean it up."

Using what they call marine-friendly concrete, Tampa Bay Watch staff and volunteers cast the most of the domes on the grounds of its Tierra Verde headquarters. Klare says he helped build them as well.

"I've done that a few times so I wanted to see the whole project come to fruition."

Ruskin resident Jim Igler has been volunteering at Tampa Bay Watch for six years. Today, he’s helping out on the truck bed, fastening the domes to the crane so it can carry them over the seawall. He says he’s seen an improvement in the bay’s water quality since he moved here over two decades ago.

"It feels good for me to know that I'm giving back and I'm meeting good people in the process. And a real quick story. I moved here in 1987 from Kansas and the bay was brown because it was polluted. And I thought it was supposed to be that way because I'm used to the Red River and the Arkansas river and the reservoirs and it's cleaning up because of the work that's being done like this. It's just a super feeling."

Igler says the perception that no one cares whether Tampa Bay becomes brown and lifeless is a misconception; that there are people out there doing good, but they’re just not as visible.

Igler says there are many ways those who don’t have the time to volunteer can help improve water quality in Tampa Bay by minding what they put on their lawns, among other things.

"We need to take care of the bay, don't pollute it. And there are so many ways not to do that. Storm water runoff, pollution, trash, nitrogen runoff, so many different things we're just defeating it. Because this is our environment, if we don't have this we don't have anything."

The crew continues its work in the water just of Bayshore Boulevard tomorrow.

Previous WMNF coverage of Tampa Bay Watch

Tampa Bay Watch

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Oyster domes - the unfortunate truth

I heard the story on oyster domes. Unfortunately this is another way to use an engineering solution to cure a human induced biological problem. The channelization and bulkheading (seawall building) of the Tampa Bay shoreline has taken away natural vegetative communities and made the natural intertidal communities such as oysters resort to living on the hard structures placed there by humans. Hard bottom structure was never common in Tampa Bay until we seawalled it. The problem is that these structures provide places for barnacles to grow (and they do grow and spread) and disturb nearshore sediments so that turbidity increases, impacting seagrasses, which were the organizing force behind the shallow habitats in the bay. Wave action and particularly boat wakes concentrated by the hard surfaces exacerbates the problem, bringing down the seawalls and creating turbidity. Unfortunately, oyster domes will do little to increase light penetration and reduce turbidity in the bay, but they may help protect some seawalls for a while and also give Tampa Bay Watch people jobs pulling the wool over our collective eyes. As usual, we (humans) should have left it alone. You should look at the Greenshores project (run by Florida DEP) in Pensacola Bay, which is trying to restore some of the natural sea shore. The problem is it will only be allowed where people don't live or want to live instead of on most shoreline, where it should be. And they have gotten the typical complaints from the rich homeowners that don't want to look at a marsh. They do not have mangroves that far north, whereas Tampa Bay would have them if they were allowed to grow.

Can we do more???

Dan… interesting information… thanks. But… as we’re not going to demolish Bayshore or quit maintaining navigable channels in the bay… please let me ask. During very low tides I’ve seen several areas in the bay where the bay floor is exposed. Can we plant partially grown mangrove trees in those areas… along with the oyster domes and some artificial reefs just outside the very low tide lines… to help reduce turbidity??? I’m not talking about the entire shoreline… just in those areas of exposed bay floor. Will the mangroves grow and help to propagate seagrasses??? And please don’t say “NO” just because of “rich folk” on Bayshore… there aint enough of them to dictate what happens in the bay… especially if the bay is in trouble!!!