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Dining with a Purpose: Local Restaurants Support Oyster Reef Program

One of South Walton’s most attractive and unique features is its gorgeous landscape — including hundreds of acres of natural forests and parks, a collection of rare dune lakes and 26 miles of beautiful coastline. In order to preserve South Walton’s wonderful ecosystem, organizations like the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) help monitor, restore and research the environment and wildlife around us. Maintaining and preserving the pristine South Walton environment is a top priority for South Walton locals and visitors, and we’re proud that organizations like the CBA are here to help.

We spoke with Rachel Gwin, the CBA’s restoration coordinator, about the CBA’s O.Y.S.T.E.R. Shell Recycling Program, which helps reduce waste and protect South Walton’s important oyster reef habitat.

What the program does:  O.Y.S.T.E.R., which stands for “Offer Your Shell to Enhance Restoration,” reduces waste and preserves the environment. The O.Y.S.T.E.R. Shell Recycling Program creates oyster reefs out of shucked oyster shells that would otherwise be discarded. Working with a handful of local restaurants, the CBA staff and AmeriCorps members collect empty oyster shells to create reefs along South Walton’s shorelines.

Shell collection by O.Y.S.T.E.R team

The reefs serve a number of important purposes. Firstly, they allow a habitat for young oysters to grow and thrive. Not only that, but they also provide a safe haven for other popular species — such as blue crabs, blennies, gobies and other small creatures — away from the waves and predators of deeper waters.

“Many people call estuaries ‘nurseries of the sea,’ and they’re absolutely right,” Rachel says. “The majority of all fish and shellfish species spend some portion of their life in an estuary, and reefs are essential to providing protection to many of these species.”

The oysters on the reefs filter out bacteria, toxins and other materials that can negatively impact water quality. They also protect the shore and its species from harsh waves — helping our environment retain its natural beauty and balance.

“Seeing the progress we’ve made feels truly gratifying, especially on a windy day,” Rachel says. “You can see the waves rolling in, but when you look toward the shoreline behind the reefs, the water is nice and calm.”

Additionally, the oyster reefs help preserve land by recycling oyster shells that would otherwise be destined for landfills.

How it works: The O.Y.S.T.E.R. team visits participating restaurants two to three times per week to collect oyster shells, which the restaurants store in large 30-gallon bins.

Oyster shells stored in 30-gallon bins

The team then leaves empty, clean bins at the restaurants and takes the full ones back to their facility to dry the shells. The shells are laid outside and allowed to naturally dry for at least six months.

The team bags the dried shells to act as building blocks for the reefs. Each reef is roughly 20 feet long, with a base width of five feet. The alternating crescent pyramid-shaped reefs are an improved design and were developed by CBA after examining oyster reef monitoring data. The innovative program name is modeled after a similar initiative in Pensacola by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Program history: The beginnings of O.Y.S.T.E.R. took place in 2009, when the CBA began purchasing fossilized oyster shells to construct reefs in the area. Realizing that they could find much more affordable, eco-friendly solutions by sourcing oyster shells from local restaurants, the CBA and AmeriCorps began working with local restaurants in 2010. Local restaurants that donate their shells include Acme Oyster HouseSurf Hut, and Shunk Gulley Oyster Bar. The overwhelming response from South Walton locals, guests and businesses reflect our community’s dedication to taking care of our surroundings.

“The restaurants are proud to participate in the program. We give them educational materials that they hand out to customers, and they love letting people know that they can help support the Bay when they eat oysters,” Rachel says.

Achievements to date: The O.Y.S.T.E.R. Shell Recycling Program has collected more than 475 tons of oyster shells since 2010, protecting thousands of wildlife species with each reef built.

Oyster shells drying outside

“Lately we’ve been building more reefs on homeowner properties, which has been incredible to watch,” Rachel says. “The homeowners are very passionate about the program, sending us photos and updates on the reefs regularly.”

“It definitely helps to have community support and we’re lucky that the South Walton community is very respectful of the environment.”

How you can help: Want to donate your oyster shells to the cause? Visit the O.Y.S.T.E.R. program web page to see a list of participating restaurants or contact the CBA about getting involved.

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