By Samantha Joseph
TREASURE COAST -- Discarded oyster shells from Tin Fish, Conchy Joe's and several other seafood restaurants around the Treasure Coast are making their way back to the water as part of a project to restore reefs in the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuaries.
Scientists at the Florida Oceanographic Society are quarantining the shells, so that staff and volunteers can deploy them as new reefs for oyster larvae.
They use the latest acoustic technology to monitor the process and help repopulate waters devastated by fresh-water discharges into the estuary.
About 400 acres or 80 percent of the total oyster reefs in the St. Lucie River have been lost in the last 70 years, said Vincent Encomio, the research scientist who spearheads the project.
"It's not easy to track down oyster shells. The restaurants we've been working with have been cooperative and willing to be part of a restorative effort," Mr. Encomio said. "By talking to them, we've been able to take that first step. It's an ongoing process to help repopulate the river."
The reefs are important for the growth of oyster larvae, which attach to the shells and use them as a habitat.
Oysters, in turn, are critical to the river, as they clean the water and provide habitat and food for hundreds of estuarine species.
The project is a long-term one that will likely last decades, officials said.
In the meantime, the Florida Oceanographic Center is growing oyster larvae. When they mature, Mr. Encomio and others lead volunteers in building oyster-shell reefs and populate local waters.
At Tin Fish, restaurant owners said they were happy to be part of a program that helps replenishes the area's vital oyster supply.
For more information, call (772) 225-0505.