Oyster restoration project launched

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and partners announce the start of construction on the Pensacola East Bay Oyster Habitat Restoration Project to boost oyster populations in East and Blackwater Bays.

The project is the largest scale estuarine habitat restoration undertaken by TNC in Florida—33 oyster reefs will be placed along approximately 6.5 miles of Santa Rosa County shoreline, to return oysters to a region where they thrived historically but have since declined.

The restoration project is funded by a $15 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (NFWF GEBF) through funding from the criminal settlement of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The reefs will help to restore oysters to the bays. The project aligns with the new regional oyster fisheries and habitat management plan, which will be led by the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program.

“Reinvigorating and conserving the oyster population in Pensacola Bay helps restore a vital part of the region’s rich history and puts to good use funds from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that impacted the region so profoundly,” said Temperince Morgan, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “We’re grateful to NFWF, the State of Florida, Santa Rosa County, the community, and the many partners who have worked to make the effort to recover the oyster population here possible.”

The oyster habitat restoration project reflects the long-term and collaborative effort of a diverse team of partners, including the oyster fishing community, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Aquaculture Division, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Santa Rosa County, Northwest Florida Water Management District, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“NFWF appreciates the significant work done by The Nature Conservancy and its partners to advance the Pensacola Bay oyster restoration project to the construction phase,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF.

TNC lends science and conservation management expertise to the project, complemented by the efforts of coastal professionals including coastal engineering firm Jacobs, managing the design, permitting and construction; coastal construction firm CrowderGulf, installing the reefs; and professional services firm WSP, conducting science-based monitoring for the project.

The reef structures have been designed to maximize oyster settlement and success under specific local conditions, enabled by the collection and review of data reflecting over two years of pre-construction monitoring and an intensive design and engineering process. The reefs will be constructed of limestone rock of select sizes and oyster shell. They will be placed between 200-500 feet off the east shores of East and Blackwater Bays in about four feet of water and may be visible at low tides during certain times of the year.

Once completed, the reefs will offer a place for oysters to settle, grow and contribute to the ecosystem by filtering water and providing an important habitat for commercially and recreationally valuable finfish, crabs, shrimp, and birds. These reefs may also serve as a source of oyster larvae for the adjacent harvestable reefs restored by the state. Monitoring will continue for up to five years following the completion of construction.