Bag oyster shells are used to create a new oyster habitat. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
By Mary Landers
In the past six years, researchers at the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service have created 14 oyster reefs up and down the Georgia coast.
Now they're taking on one of their biggest challenges yet, a nearly half-acre reef on the Skidaway River behind the UGA aquarium.
Eight AmeriCorps workers started the reef this week, but volunteers are welcome to get their feet muddy Saturday and early next week.
"It's a great opportunity for folks to see the whole process from bagging to putting it into the marsh," said Daniel Harris, oyster restoration coordinator.
The marine extension program is partnering with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Coastal Conservation Association on this reef and another two on Sapelo Island
There's plenty of work to go around. Creating the Skidaway reef requires the bagging of 10,000 bushels of oyster shells.Volunteers will stuff the shells into plastic mesh bags, which help keep them in place against the tide and in the wake of passing boats. They'll then pile them onto pallets laid in the marsh to undergird the structure.
For Anna Hill, a 23-year-old AmeriCorps worker from Fairfax, Va., slogging through the pluff mud and slapping away gnats Thursday morning was worth it. "I like getting dirty," she said. "And being in the water and outside."
When complete, the reef will stretch more than a quarter mile along the shore.
About a century ago, Georgia was America's oyster hub, leading the nation in oyster landings. The bivalve's decline had multiple causes, including overharvest, drought and disease. But each of those problems was exacerbated by a simple practice: Oystermen didn't put the shells back in the water. Baby oysters settle and grow on the shells of previous generations. With fewer and smaller oyster reefs in the water, each young oyster is squeezed for space.
In 2009, only 7,000 pounds of oyster meat was harvested in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. It's estimated 90 percent to 99 percent of the reefs that existed in Georgia 100 years ago have disappeared.
Oysters are more than a delicacy; oyster reefs help prevent shore erosion. As a filter feeder, a single adult oyster can clean up 2.5 gallons of water an hour. And seafood lovers take note: Oysters are a keystone species that provides fish, crabs and shrimp with a place to hide, feed and raise young.
On a day when the water's clear, you can see juvenile shrimp swarming on an oyster reef, Harris said. "They swim right up to your face."
Help build a reef
Those interested in volunteering should wear old sneakers or other appropriate shoes and clothes that can get muddy. A causeway of pallets will lead into the water to make access easier. Gloves and snacks will be provided. All ages are welcome at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography campus, 10 Ocean Science Circle.