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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Protecting Pelican Island with an Oyster Reef

line of folks passing bags
Workers at the reef site pass bags of shells from the boat and stack them near the mangrove island. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

Ken Warren of our South Florida Ecological Services Office tells us about work at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Dozens of people got their feet wet in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida recently while building an oyster reef breakwater. The reef is designed to prevent further erosion of iconic Pelican Island, which has already decreased in size 60 percent from its original 5.5 acres.

Over a span of about six hours, staff and volunteers from several agencies transported (by truck and by boat) about 600 bags of fossilized shells and stacked them around a small mangrove island near Pelican Island proper at the national wildlife refuge that bears its name.

“We expect oyster spat, that is very young oysters, to attach themselves to the reef, but it remains to be seen if they survive to become adults. Regardless, the shell we’re laying today will provide habitat for a variety of oyster community species and will provide a breakwater to protect Pelican Island,” says biologist Patrick Pitts of the Service.

   the siteThe area marked off in yellow is where the reef was constructed. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was the first land set aside by the federal government for the sake of wildlife in 1903,” says Laura Flynn of Coastal Resources, Inc. (CRI), the company overseeing the work for the Service. “This project is the next phase of more than two decades of work to restore and preserve this important natural resource.”

CRI’s Robin Lewis adds: “This phase of the project is necessary due to the impacts of sea-level rise and boat wakes. We’re working to save the island because it’s where several water bird species roost and nest such as brown pelicans, wood storks and great blue herons...just to name a few.”

shells   These are the types of fossilized shells in the bags. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

According to the Nature Conservancy, oyster reefs provide important services to people and nature by:

  • cleaning water – a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons per day;
  • providing food and habitat for a diversity of plants and animals, including fish, crabs and birds; and
  • serving as natural coastal buffers from boat wakes, sea-level rise and storms.
   loading bags onto boat
Kevin Palmer and Robinson Bazurto load bags of shells onto a boat. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

Staff and volunteers from the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Complex, South Florida Ecological Services Office, Pelican Island Preservation Society (PIPS) and Peninsular Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office worked with CRI to conduct this restoration project.

“Pelican Island is vital habitat for the birds. I’m out here because I want to help save it for them,” says Susan King of PIPS.

The Indian River County Mosquito Control District provided staff and a large shallow-draft pontoon boat that transported the bulk of the shells over water. They also provided and installed the required turbidity curtain around the project area to protect adjacent estuarine habitat during project construction.

“We couldn't have envisioned, planned or executed the project without the help and support of our volunteers, friends, and partners,” says Bill Miller, project leader for the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Complex.


It is encouraging to see a private entity and the federal government work collaboratively to protect the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. Erosion of islands degrades water quality, and protecting islands from erosion helps bird species not lose their nesting homes and migration homes. The installation of the oyster spat along the island is a solution I have never heard to prevent erosion, but oysters are known to benefit its niche in multiple ways (filtering water, providing food and habitat, and as a natural buffer from erosion). Also, seeing the number of volunteers come and help with the installation of the oyster spat is also encouraging to see that people do care about what happens with their local ecosystems in their states. I would really like to see further updates of this!
# Posted By Rachel Pak | 3/17/17 5:07 PM
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