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Employees and volunteers in personal flotation devices unload oyster shell from a boat.
Information icon USFWS employees and volunteers offloading bags of shell for the oyster reef project. Photo by Sandee Dawdy, Pelican Island NWR volunteer.

Oyster reef project designed to aid pelican island

Dozens of people got their feet wet in the Indian River Lagoon on February 28 while building an oyster reef breakwater at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Vero Beach, Florida. The reef is designed to prevent further erosion of iconic Pelican Island, which has already decreased in size by 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 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,” said Service biologist Patrick Pitts.

Employees and volunteers wearing life preservers on a boat unload oyster shells.
USFWS employees and volunteers are hard at work offloading bags of shell for the project. Photo by Sandee Dawdy, Pelican Island NWR volunteer.

“Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was the first land set aside by the federal government for the sake of wildlife in 1903,” said 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.”

Robin Lewis, also of CRI, added, “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.”

According to the Nature Conservancy, oyster reefs are the ecosystem engineers of bays and estuaries. They provide important services to people and nature by:

  • cleaning water: a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons a 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

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,” said 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 the 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,” said Bill Miller, project leader for the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

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