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ABOUT BREVARD OYSTER RESTORATION:

Spanning 156 miles and five Florida counties, the Indian River Lagoon is one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the country, providing a home for more than 4,000 species of plants and animals. The vast majority of this waterway, which includes the Mosquito Lagoon area and both the Banana and Indian rivers, is located here in Brevard County, providing our community with a one-of-a-kind ecological and recreational treasure that also has an estimated economic value of $3.7 billon per year.

However, in recent years, the lagoon has seen increasing threats to its water quality and biological diversity. Continuous inputs of pollution have overloaded the estuary, resulting in algal blooms and the deaths of wildlife. But Brevard Zoo recognized the importance of using the oyster’s natural ability to filter water as a way to improve the water quality of the Indian River Lagoon.

The Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, was once found in abundance along the Indian River Lagoon but has now disappeared from many portions of the waterway. The native oyster population was decimated by a combination of factors; including coastal construction, overharvesting, pollution, disease and boat wakes. Oysters are an essential part of the Indian River lagoon ecosystem for many reasons. They are a keystone species that numerous other species depend on for food and habitat. Oysters are also gregarious, which means that individuals clump together, creating natural reefs that help prevent shoreline erosion.

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But most importantly, oysters are filter feeders, which means that they consume organic material present in the waters of the lagoon, thereby cleaning the water. In fact, one average adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Imagine how many gallons of filtered water this would add up to over an oyster’s 20 year life span! Their filtering abilities help to reduce the amount of pollutants, algae and muck floating in the river, and the resulting improved water clarity and light penetration is especially important for sea grass, another keystone species in the Indian River Lagoon.

So, in 2009, Brevard Zoo partnered with the University of Central Florida to restore oyster reefs, starting with the Mosquito Lagoon portion of the Indian River Lagoon in Volusia County. Oyster restoration reefs are created using a quilt-like pattern of “oyster mats”, which was developed by UCF’s Dr. Linda Walters. The oyster mats provide new habitat for free-swimming oyster larvae, and since the project’s beginnings, more than 43,000 mats have been made and deployed, establishing 73 new oyster reefs, thanks to the help of more than 46,000 volunteers.

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More recently, Brevard Zoo has also  partnered with Brevard County to launch the Oyster Gardening Project. This is a community-based project that relies on the efforts of citizen scientists to grow oysters and collect data on oyster survivability in the Indian River Lagoon in order to facilitate the construction of restored oyster reefs and reintroduction of live oysters to the most hospitable areas of Brevard County.

Residents living along the lagoon volunteer to create oyster habitats and deploy them off their docks. The habitats are filled with shells covered in  living oyster spat (attached oyster larvae) and are monitored weekly for signs of oyster recruitment and survivability. This data is used to determine the best locations for large-scale oyster reef restoration projects, similar to the work currently being done in Mosquito Lagoon, with the major difference being that oysters grown through the program are used to populate the new reefs, since many areas of Brevard County no longer have oyster populations capable of producing new free-swimming larvae.

In the fall of 2014, construction began on the very first Brevard County oyster reefs, and since then, more than 60 sections of oyster reef (and 15 control sections) have been built to  help improve water quality and re-establish the area’s oyster population.

For more information about the issues affecting the Indian River Lagoon, please refer to the following news articles:

Empowering the Community to act for our Lagoon