Stuart area gets millions for oyster beds

A $4 million federal grant should mean restored oyster beds, cleaner water and about 100 jobs in Martin County. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has allocated $4,024,969 to the Martin County Commission to build about 200 acres of oyster bed reefs in the St. Lucie River between the Roosevelt and Evans Crary bridges and in the Northwest Fork of the Loxahatchee River near Tequesta.

The money for the project comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, part President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package. More than 800 applications for grants were made and 50 approved. Of the four projects funded in Florida, Martin County’s was the largest.

“If the commissioners award the bid on July 7,” she, “we’ll be out on July 7, 8 or 9 doing surveys on the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee rivers to see exactly where to put the oyster beds.”

FitzPatrick said “seven or eight” sites in the St. Lucie have already been permitted for beds. Patch reefs 30 feet in diameter and made of old oyster shells will be placed in the water near Martin Memorial Medical Center and Rio.

Closer to the Crary bridge, smaller reefs made of oyster shells in mesh bags will be placed in the water both as oyster habitat and to protect shorelines from erosion by boat wakes. Several landowners have signed on for mangrove plantings along their shorelines, FitzPatrick said.
County officials have identified 106 jobs that will be involved in the project, “everybody from marine contractors, barge operators, quarrymen for the huge amount of shells we’ll need, to nurserymen, scientists and ecologists,” FitzPatrick said. “There will be a lot of people employed by this over the course of the year, and almost all of them local.”

Oysters once thrived in the St. Lucie River, said Vincent Encomio, an oyster research specialist at the Stuart-based Florida Oceanographic Society.

“But over the years the St. Lucie has lost about 75 percent of its living oyster bed acreage,” Encomio said. “Creating more habitat for oysters will improve the habitat for all the other organisms that depend on the reefs to live.”

Oysters filter water at a rate of 40 gallons per oyster per day. With about 600,000 oysters per acre of reef, that’s 24 million gallons of water a day.

FitzPatrick said the bivalves will be able “to filter the entire volume of the river every month. That improvement to the water quality is very substantial.”