Artificial oyster reefs provide multiple ecosystem benefits in restoring Naples Bay
In a small cove at the mouth of Rock Creek near the Gordon River that runs into Naples Bay, four artificial oyster reefs await new denizens.
The habitats are one of three artificial reef projects the City of Naples is implementing to improve water clarity, quality and restore lost habitats.
“The Naples Bay and Gordon River area has lost 80% of the historical oyster cover that existed since 1950s due to development, dredging for navigation and the altering hydrology, which affects water quality,” Katie Laakkonen, interim manager of the city’s natural resources division. “This is an effort to get this key habitat back into the bay and do it in a successful way.”
The city contracted Sea and Shoreline, an aquatic restoration company based in Florida, to finish building up four reefs. The city’s earlier, community-focused initiative finished about 30% of the reef construction.
Heather Herold, spokeswoman for Sea and Shoreline, said the company used about 190 tons of oyster shells, coral and limestone to build the reefs. Normally, artificial reefs are built by filling plastic mesh bags with these materials, but the contractor finished the reefs without using them.
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The Rock Creek reefs are the third and smallest site around Naples Bay where the city is building up these habitats. The largest, near Haldeman Creek, was finished in 2019, Laakkonen said.
The Rock Creek and Haldeman Creek reefs were funded through just more than $500,000 in grants obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. About $242,000 in city funds were used to cover the remaining costs of the two sites.
The second largest site, which will be built further up Haldeman Creek, is still waiting to be funded.
“We are looking at grants for Site 2 and the earliest they will be finished will probably be fiscal year 2022,” Laakkonen said. “There’s always a possibility if that funding does not come through it could be into 2023, but hopefully within next year and half, two years is when we hope to accomplish that.”
The city contracted Florida Gulf Coast University to do some biological monitoring of the reef restorations, which is how James Douglass, associate professor of marine science at FGCU’s Water School, became familiar with the projects.
“It’s a fun project because you start to see early results pretty quickly,” Douglass said. “It doesn’t take life very long to find and colonize these structures. It’s really gratifying to see that happening before our eyes.”
The Rock Creek reefs, which wrapped up in December, should start seeing oysters attaching themselves beginning this month. It could take a few years until the reefs are completely full of oysters, but once that happens, they’ll be self-sustaining and will likely not need any maintenance.
“Growth of new oysters settle on top of the old ones,” Douglass said. "It keeps up with erosion and causes the reef to grow. It’s all dependent on how well oysters are settling and growing, but these reefs will be expanding — not merely maintaining themselves.”
The Rock Creek project:Four artificial oyster reefs to be constructed at Rock Creek in Naples
And while the reefs provide a myriad of underwater benefits — from water filtration to habitat for sea life — they were built with sea-level and a changing climate in mind. The reefs were built at mean high water to ensure long-term survivability, Laakkonen said.
This means the tops of the artificial reefs will provide habitat for birds and even mangroves.
“We found that they’re really popular with birds,” Douglass said. “They’re a great foraging area for herons and oyster catchers and other birds that like shelf fish. It was an unexpected benefit.”
Douglass and Laakkonen both said those with bayfront properties can also build these artificial reefs either instead of sea walls or in front of them.
“Instead of just a wall, border your waterfront property with restored oyster reefs and get some of those benefits,” Douglass said. “It’s rethinking how we armor our shorelines with natural, reeflike features instead of typical bulk heads to get some of that 80 percent back.”
Laakkonen suggested reaching out to marine contractors.
“Go over what they want to do on shoreline and the contractor will know what slope to put it at, and what material and size is best,” she said.
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk