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Step right up to the Oyster Bar

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Peter Clark is a popular guy these days, and it's not because he is particularly rich, talented or good looking. He owns a cement mixer.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Peter Clark is a popular guy these days, and it's not because he is particularly rich, talented or good looking. He owns a cement mixer.

"We can now make our own reef balls," said Clark, director of Tampa BayWatch. "Once we put these minireefs along a sea wall and oysters start growing, everybody wants them."

Why? Fish eat oysters. People eat fish.

Clark and the Tampa BayWatch team installed some of the small, concrete "oyster balls" recently along a sea wall in Shore Acres. It wasn't long before Clark heard from one of the adjacent property owners.

"He complained that all the snook were over at his neighbor's house," Clark said. "He wanted to know what he had to do to get his own oyster reefs."

Clark said the oyster balls cost about $40 a piece, but they were free to waterfront homeowners who wanted to improve the marine habitat potential along their sea walls.

"I told him that we would put him on our list," Clark said.

But the man wasn't satisfied. So he went to a cash machine, picked up $100 and purchased a "snook" level membership with the environmental organization.

"He said, "Now I'm a member ... put me at the top of the list,' " Clark said.

Clark and the BayWatch crew can't make enough of the small concrete reef balls to keep up with homeowner demand. Earlier this month, 50 oyster reef balls were installed along the shoreline at the Vinoy Yacht Basin. This week, on Wednesday and Thursday, an additional 150 oyster reef balls were set along the sea wall near Florida Power Park.

"Sea walls are a water quality nightmare," Clark said. "There is not much you can do with them. The water is too deep for mangroves and the quality too poor for sea grasses. That's a big problem, because in St. Petersburg alone, there are 288 miles of sea walls."

But drop an environmentally friendly (additives are mixed with the concrete to neutralize the pH, making it compatible to marine life) and within days, oysters will begin growing.

Why all the fuss about oysters?

"They filter the water, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Clark said. "When you improve water quality, you improve fishing."

Oysters are a valuable forage food for a variety of marine animals, and the reef balls themselves also provide habitat for small fish and protect the sea walls from storm damage.

BayWatch's recent oyster enhancing efforts are part of a larger project to deploy nearly 500 oyster reef units along public sea walls in the Vinoy and Northeast neighborhoods of St. Petersburg this year.

But the oyster balls are valuable to more than just sea walls. They can be placed in shallow areas where there were once naturally occurring oyster bars.

"The Department of Transportation has approached us to talk about the possibility of putting some reef balls along the Howard Frankland Bridge causeway," Clark said.

The oyster balls also could be used to make miniartificial reefs along popular Tampa Bay fishing piers, such as the one in downtown St. Petersburg.

"Our mission is to enhance habitat," Clark said. "Better fishing is just a byproduct."

Do oyster bars really make a difference?

Clark has taken buckets of mined oyster shells and dumped them in shallow areas of the bay that look suitable. After a few months, the mined oysters become rock hard, which allows live oysters to gain a foothold.

"I went back out there after a couple of months," Clark said. "I knew it was working when I pulled up and found three boats anchored up fishing these two small oyster bars."

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