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    School's research aims to aid oyster beds

    University of Central Florida researchers are examining the impact boats are having on a group of key oyster beds in Volusia County.

    ©Associated Press
    January 2, 2002

    OAK HILL -- Oysters once grew in such numbers in Mosquito Lagoon, their beds protruded from the water. Now, though, the reefs of oysters have diminished, and half of them have dead shells around their edges.

    University of Central Florida researchers, who have been studying oysters in this lagoon for more than a decade, are looking into whether boats are ruining the beds in these southeastern Volusia County waters.

    "Boat wakes may have an impact by pushing oysters around," said Linda Walters, a professor of biology at UCF and a coordinator of the study. Boats also could be affecting oysters by stirring up more sediment, she said.

    The $280,000 study is sponsored by the National Park Service, which is responsible for Canaveral National Seashore, home of the lagoon, and the National Sea Grant Program.

    On a recent morning, a small research boat cruised from one oyster bed to another. On each bed, Walters and her students inspected dead oyster shells.

    Graduate student Lisa Wall brushed each shell, removing dirt and looking for small, transparent baby oysters.

    After hatching, oyster larvae float through the water, using chemical cues to find good places to settle down.

    Once settled, they grow into mature oysters in about three years.

    In the upcoming weeks, researchers want to compare the number of baby oysters attaching to dead shells in pristine areas to the number next to boating channels. That will tell them if baby oysters thrive in one environment better than the other.

    As Walters did her work, a sudden visit interrupted the research. Quietly gliding through shallow waters of the lagoon, a small boat with a fisherman carrying a bucket of oysters stopped in front of the researchers.

    Catfish Miller stopped to see who intruded on one of the oyster beds he's been harvesting for 34 years. Once he recognized the intruders as scientists, he shared some of his knowledge.

    "(Fishermen) don't handle oysters right," Miller said.

    "Some people bang around. Others take the ones with babies. It's like a garden. If you don't take care of it, it's not going to grow."

    About 120 people have commercial licenses to harvest oysters, clams and crabs in the lagoon, said John Stiner, resources manager for the Canaveral National Seashore.

    In 2000, Volusia County fishermen harvested 10,986 pounds of oyster meat, state records show.

    That number doesn't include 13 people who have leases with the state to harvest oysters in the lagoon, and recreational fishermen who are allowed to take two five-gallon buckets of oysters a day without a permit.

    Oysters are very important for the ecology of the lagoon, Stiner said. Many marine animals depend on them for food and shelter.

    "They are unique here," Stiner said. "We're trying to determine if there's something we can do about protecting them."

    If researchers find evidence that boat wakes cause damage to oyster reefs, one solution might be to impose slow speed zones near vulnerable reefs, Stiner said.

    "But at this point we don't know what the reason is," he said. "It's all speculation."

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