The future has looked bleak for oysters in our part of the world.
In fact, it's been labeled as critical, but there is actually help on the immediate horizon, and we're cautiously optimistic as we report that the future is looking better for our oysters and waterways.
In fact, we're calling this edition of In Studio Hope on the Half Shell.
We're going to take a deep dove with oysters straight ahead.
We are all about to learn a lot about oysters.
Now, personally, I've always just thought about them as something that many people enjoy devouring.
But in addition to being a hugely popular food source, they are actually vital to our area.
Water quality as well as our economy.
On this show, we're talking all things oysters and why we should all care for this edition of In Studio.
We've gathered together a wonderful group of guests to help give us some hope on the half shell.
Joining in for this part of our show, a look into the past of Pensacola's oysters.
We're honored to welcome Chief Dan Skyhorse Helms of the Santa Rosa Creek Muskogee tribe.
Chief Dan is an environmental and indigenous rights activists.
And in addition to his responsibilities of chief and serving his tribe tribe, he works diligently to help build relationships with Mother Earth and with one another.
We also welcome Dr. Brian Rucker.
He's a professor of history at Pensacola State College and is also the author of numerous books on northwest Florida.
He's joining us on this segment of our show to help shed some light on the industrial history of our local area and how all of that connects to our local resources and where we are today.
Matt Posner joins us.
Matt is a Pensacola native and is the executive director of the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program.
He oversees all aspects of that organization.
He and that includes administration planning, government affairs and projects.
Now, prior to being in this capacity, Matt served as Escambia County's Restore program manager, overseeing all aspects of the county's Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration efforts.
And my right hand person for this show sitting to my left, Logan McDonald.
Logan grew up in northwest Florida and has an interdisciplinary background in biology and environmental education.
She's responsible for Pensacola, FLA, and Perdido Bay's estuary programs, communications, working with partners on outreach, public engagement and educational activities.
In this role, Logan works throughout the Pensacola and Perdido Watersheds in both Alabama and Florida.
So thank you all for joining us and being here today.
It takes a lot of time out of somebody's day to be here, and I certainly appreciate it.
So thank you.
I'm going to start with Chief Dan, because I think that your people were here long before any of the rest of us.
And you probably know quite a lot about how oysters figured into your the past for the Muskogee Creek Indians.
One of the tribes that was very much involved in the oysters, especially in the area of East Bay, where some of the restoration projects have taken place, was the Escobar and the Indians and the Cabana Indians came out of Kobashi up in Alabama as the European incursion was taking place, and they were pushed further and further away.
And so they wound up coming down here very early on before all of the Indian removal acts and things like that happened.
And they set up a village on Esk about a point and they use the bays for their not only their substance, but also for their livelihood.
And they would oyster in the East Bay and then by boat they would take the oysters over to Pensacola and sell them or trade them for supplies.
And they there are a lot of middens that are in the area.
And middens are something that the Native Americans used there, made of oyster shells.
They used them for various purposes.
Sometimes they were used for ceremonial rings and they actually did some that went out into the estuaries.
And those were our first artificial reefs.
So that is almost an intuitive situation.
Do you think they were so in tune with the area that they knew that would be something good?
The things that they did is they were very conscious of preserving and not taking too much, not overextending the supply or the demand on the supply of oysters.
And they would go out into the bays and wade out and with their hands, they would select the medium size oysters.
They'd leave the larger ones and leave the smaller ones, and they'd take the medium sized oysters.
And they would even in the deeper water, they had wooden rakes that they would go out in boats and actually pull up the oysters with the wooden rakes.
And we lost a lot of knowledge that would have been very helpful when they ask about the Indians or talked into going to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears after Andrew Jackson's 1830, 1830 in the Removal Act.
And they knew about the oysters, they knew the importance of the oysters, the environment, and that knowledge is now just lost.
Well, we're hoping that we appreciate people like you bringing that back to us.
And Dr. Rucker, who lets people know about our history, how did the industrial part of this area factor in to oysters?
Not in a good way, but historians, archeologists.
We love oyster shell middens because, you know, for thousands of years Native Americans in chalk that your bay, Blackwater East Bay, Pensacola Bay Perdita Bay would harvest oysters and they had these huge tons of oyster shells over millennia and practically every bay had these oyster shell piles and tons of them.
And so they were easy to spot.
In the 1800s, people.
So there must have been an Indian village here.
And so it was.
Archeologists love middens because a lot of times when they threw out the oyster shells, they also threw out scraps, pottery shards, things of that nature.
And so there's a lot of artifacts that failed because of oysters.
Shell Minute, it's a telltale sign.
This was utilized by people 500 years ago, a thousand years ago or older.
In fact, these oyster shell minutes were still being utilized up to the 1960s where people would not knowingly they would take dump trucks full of these things and use them for parking lots and for grading roads.
While local roads were graded with oysters shells.
And so a lot of artifacts disappeared because of that.
So we've lost a lot of history that fell through the oyster shells, literally.
But going back to your question about the the industry in the late 1800s, the Longleaf Pine was the big thing around here.
They were harvesting it and there was no thought of reforestation or conservation.
It really got better in the late 1800s with the start.
Put it in logging railroads into the northern hands, away from the coastal areas, and they just began to clearcut with no thought of reforestation.
And one of the biggest evil things they did was create a machine called a Skier.
It was a steam powered machine.
They put it on the back of a train, and when they got to a site where there are a lot of pines, the Skidder would unleash a cable, steel cable, sometimes a mile away.
They would cut down the trees.
They would tie the logs with these cables, and then Skinner would drag all these logs maybe a mile back to the railroad.
Well, they'd be loaded onto the cars.
But when the Skidder did this, it destroyed everything.
Every bush, every blade of grass was destroyed.
You do not want to get between the Skidder and the logs.
And so it created enormous amounts of ecological damage.
Destroy the understory, the forest floor first.
It also cut down the forest.
And you had enormous amounts of erosion begin in the late 1800s, which was draining into a lot faster.
It used to in the creeks and rivers, the bays around here, I've looked at nautical charts from the 1850s in every creek river bay here was significantly deeper by 1900.
Practically everyone these watersheds has been filled.
It's still that way.
100 years later, the ecological damage is there.
It's not only did they do reforestation or not, the they did deforestation.
They're also destroying the ecology, the waterways.
And so you have definitely a shallow wing of the creeks and rivers and bays, and that will affect the oyster population.
So a lot of that stuff goes back to environmental damage done over 100 years ago that we're still dealing with today.
Yeah, still dealing with it.
And I think we're we don't have a lot of time in this segment.
I want to make sure that the two of you share as many things about the oyster history in this area as possible.
And so Matt and Logan and I'll talk in some other blogs.
But Chief, down, further thoughts on the oysters.
We've just got a few few moments.
Well, I'd like to say something that goes well beyond the oysters, the restoration projects that have been required and where we're 200 years or so behind the curve of trying to deal with damages has already been done.
And in the Native American thought in cosmology, we say that where there is respect, there's no need for restoration, and we have lost that respect and therefore we're having to scramble.
Do you think we're coming back around?
You've seen history.
Have we just continued on that that deep dove, or do we see maybe the curve coming back up?
We're short sighted as we used to be.
So we've learned over the years like, well, that was stupid, let's never do that again.
And sometimes when you when a ecosystem is failing, it takes something to shake us out of our apathy.
And I think that's happened now in the last 50 to 70 years.
People realize there are limits to what we can do.
We need to plan things more wisely.
So your people relied a lot on on oysters in this area.
It was very much a staple for for a lot of different reasons.
And the thing that with all the restoration projects and things that are trying to recover what has been lost, that science, and that's going to be no more than a Band-Aid.
If we as a people do not change our hearts, do not change our minds, and do not change the way we look at our world, this world that we're standing on.
We can't destroy it and continue to have it.
Let us survive.
Yeah, well, and as I said, we're almost out of time.
It's just such a fascinating conversation.
But Dr. Rucker, did you want to add to that?
Seeing the past and going into the future.
And I think want to answer that idea of respect, we have to respect the world around us, the world we live in.
And you guys are working on some restoration projects that we'll be getting to.
And like Chief Dan mentioned, part of that is in the effort of restoring what we've lost.
We also have to get to a place where we're not just treating the symptom, but really treating the cause and being more proactive about how we plan our communities, how we choose to live our daily lives, simple things we can all do.
And we'll get into those deeper.
Are you going to say something, Dr. Rucker?
No, nothing additional.
Any questions for these gentlemen before we go to break?
And I'm hoping to encourage our viewers to to look both of you up in the work that you've put out there and know more about the topics that we've just barely scratched the surface of.
Thank you so much for being here, madam.
MADDOW That's right.
MADDOW All right.
Well, we're going to change up our guests in just a moment and continue our discussion.
Hope on the half shell.
After these messages, we'll be joined by two ladies with a shared passion for our natural resources along the Gulf Coast.
You're watching us, WSRE TV.
Stay right here This is in studio on WSRE TV.
The topic, everything.
Oysters in this part of our show, Matt and Logan will discuss area natural resources and the importance of oysters to our waters and the economy.
And we welcome two additional guests to our discussion, Chris Verlinde.
Chris has worked as an environmental professional in the northwest Florida area for some 27 years or so.
She's done lots of research and education.
She's worked with many wild oyster harvesters, commercial fishers and oyster aquaculture companies.
She has supported so many in these fields throughout the years.
Chris helps provide opportunities for community members and leaders that promote the importance of our area's natural resources.
And Shayna Alford Shayna was born and raised in this area on the waters of Escambia and East Bay.
She earned a marine biology degree from UW F and continued her education with the University of Florida.
She considers herself a naturalist and helps teach people to be good stewards of their environment.
Shayna is now the owner of an oyster farm, Avalon Aquaculture, and the director of a local environmental laboratory with a focus on water quality.
So we welcome you both to in studio.
Thank you so much for what you're doing for this area.
So many people, myself included, we drive by the waterways and we don't always tend to think, Gee, I wonder if that's healthy unless we want to get in it.
So the work and the research you're doing is so vitally important.
Chris You spend time on this all the time.
I saw you first in the humble oyster, which is going to be available to viewers.
But let's talk about oysters and how they relate to what you do on a daily basis.
Well, I think that oysters just, you know, just working like in that environment, natural, you know, natural resource reading.
And basically oysters are a keystone species and they really important to water quality.
And if we don't have good water quality, you know, we're not going to have a lot of the things that we do enjoy.
So just the fact that they that oysters help clean water, they contribute to the economy, they contribute to eco tourism.
I mean, there's so many benefits to having it having them, you know, in our bays and a healthy oyster population team is also very important, I feel, in what we've seen, too, in the past.
And you know.
Well, so Keystone, explain that directly because they're kind of right at the bottom of the food chain, is that correct?
Well, they provide a lot of habitat for a lot of other filk shrimp and crabs and things like that, too.
And so if we didn't have oysters, we wouldn't have a lot of the other organisms that do depend on them, too.
And so they're really important into our bays and bayous.
Shayna, you have just and I saw this in the film, can't wait for everybody to have seen it or see it.
But you shared your life on the water as an oyster farmer.
And it seems to me to be something that you just feel so extremely passionate about.
Why is that?
I I've always cared about the environment, whether it be trees or water or animals.
And the reason I picked oysters is because they give back, you know, and there are days where I yearn to be out in the water.
And so it seemed natural to me to pick something that put me out there live where I work and work where I live, you know.
And you do another job.
So there are days when you go out that you've worked all day and you feel so passionately about that that you're out there again.
There are days where I get off work and I go jump in my kayak or my boat and I go out to my farm and I'm out there until the sun sets.
And, you know, as I'm coming back in and I realize the sun is going down and I'm out on the water even though I'm tired and I've got to do it again tomorrow.
There's nothing I would rather do.
I could see that just from hearing some of the things that you said.
So I've gotten a whole education on this.
So oysters, I did not know that oyster shells grow with the oyster to the hooves.
Who wants to speak to that?
So they actually secrete nectar around their cells and they produce that.
That's also how they make a pearl.
So they just continue to to grow in that way.
And they're very unique.
So I've always heard.
So once they become an oyster and there's the the animal inside, is that considered an animal?
It is an animal.
I mean, it's a it's a unique animal in that they filter feed and they have a primitive brain and very primitive organs.
But they are in the animal family.
Matt, let's talk about the importance of what what Shane is doing and what Chris does for our area.
It's, you know, one thing that I think everybody looks at in terms of Florida is where Apalachicola is is the main place for oyster harvesting.
And historically, that's true.
Around 90% of oyster of oysters in Florida came from Apalachicola.
But right behind it was East Bay supporting 10% of the oyster landings for state of Florida consumption.
So while this, you know, small bay in comparison to the you know to the much larger Apalachicola Bay um served as a real economic kind of powerhouse, if you will, for the region, supporting many families over, over the generations for a while harvesting to bring to market for not only Florida but across the U.S.
But unfortunately, as we heard from Chief Dan and Dr. Ricker, we started to see those environmental decline and those water quality declines, whether it's sedimentation, bacteria issues, nutrient issues, as a combination of both the industrialization of the Pensacola Bay area, but then also the development we have, you know, many, many new residents moving in to our communities over the last 40, 50 years that has resulted in that environmental decline.
And so what we've lost is around 85% of our historic oyster and oyster resources.
Wow, that's huge.
And Logan, you spent a lot of time letting people know about these issues.
One of the things we've learned is that especially with all those new residents that are moving to our area because of the beautiful natural resources that we have and they want to enjoy, a lot of folks don't actually know what we've lost and they don't necessarily aren't aware of that deep cultural connection to our oysters.
And how many families and harvesters were depend on that as a way of life.
So I'm hoping Sheena can speak to us a little bit about, you know, how have water quality declines or issues impacted you as a small business owner?
So, I mean, the main things that people think about is our money and starting over, but it's an emotional toll as well.
So just to talk about, I had to start over from scratch.
So it's like this is my first year in business now because everything that I had done in the years previous, besides the equipment that I could recoup, is basically washed clean.
I mean, the experiences that I have that I can take that on to my next year.
But as a farmer and this as any farmer, you're supposed to be rotating your crops.
And I lost a year in rotating my crops.
I lost some of the gumption I had.
I mean, although that can happen with anything hurricanes or or storms, boat damage, it's scary.
Somebody asked me recently, am I scared to start over?
And the answer is yes, because, you know, it can continue to degrade to the point where there are more closures and there are more people who have to close their farm or move.
So what do you need us as viewers and people that live in this area to do for you and for other oyster harvesters?
You definitely want to support your local oystermen, whether that be wild or farmers seafood as well, not just your oystermen, but your shrimpers and your fishermen on an individual basis lands next to the coast.
You know, everybody wants a pretty lawn and a nice white beach, but they don't realize that that's the least healthy thing you can do for your bay right out side of your yard and just be a little more conscious of like wildlife and plants that were there before you ever got there, because it's all a trickle down effect.
You know, everything that you do on land eventually ends up in that bay.
And Chris, you study that all the time.
And I think that one thing, too, that people tend to do as well, especially if they live on the coast, is, you know, keep a buffer of, you know, vegetation along your shoreline that actually will help, you know, prevent erosion, but then also remove toxins from storm water runoff.
And then also, you know, if you're ever looking into that, you know, in some kind of protection on your shoreline for erosion.
Living shorelines were great.
And they usually involve, you know, oyster shell or or some kind of substrate that attacks attract attacks attracts oyster habitat and or oyster spat.
And then that creates habitat so that not only do you have protection for your shoreline, but you also have increased, you know, biodiversity and wildlife and a lot more fish you'd like to fish.
Well, so Chris mentioned spat and I've never heard that word in my life until the past week.
Do you you go and you buy spat from someone and could you tell our viewers about that?
So we call it seed in the aquaculture industry.
It is technically spat because it's settled on a on a grain of salt.
But just like farmers, we call it seed.
And there are few hatcheries in Florida, in Alabama, Louisiana.
But that is one of the many challenges we have is that seed is is kind of hard to come by because they also fight these environmental challenges in trying to grow the seed.
And then demand is so high because you have traditional on bottom farmers and you have off bottom farmers like we are here in Pensacola and they all need that spot in order to continue to cultivate.
And I saw in the film that you pulled up a few baskets of oysters that you could hear before you even pulled them up, that there was a problem.
What's that about?
So you're actually going to have some mortality when you have so many?
I think, you know, we hope for an 80% success rate, but it's probably closer to, I would say, a 50, 60% success rate.
And so when you get a lot of seed, you know, you can get 90,000 seed in a season.
That's a small that's a small grab of seed.
You know, you're you're naturally going to have some die.
And a lot of that, too, is my learning experience.
You know, I might have had too many in a basket and that has happened.
And I've had some that boat strike came through the basket, ended up on shore and it ended up they all ended up dying.
So, you know, you have a lot of factors out there and it's all about, you know, just keeping at it.
Well, there are so many people that are watching that are grateful that you do keep at it.
I'm not an oyster eater, but I saw you actually take one out of the water and eat it.
And I just you have to have some real faith in what you're growing to do that, I would think.
Yeah, I absolutely do.
I also am taking cues from the environment.
Is it cold outside?
What does the water look like?
Did we have a rain a couple of days before?
Not to mention that the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services does post regularly, and we are required by law to follow that.
When and when you cannot pull oysters out of the water.
But, you know, I've done that ever since I was little in areas that were harvestable.
I would take the cues of the environment and and take that as a time that I could harvest either oysters or clams or fish or, you know.
Sounds like you.
Yeah, it sounds like you've taken some wisdom from Chief Dan, we're about out of time for this segment.
Do either of you have any other questions for Shayna?
Not a question, but just a comment to make is that, you know, when we're talking about the restoration that needs to happen moving forward and I know we'll talk about this in the next segment, it really relies on also making sure we have aquaculture operators in this area.
So while they are looking at this as a business and bringing to market.
Pensacola Bay East Bay grown oysters.
Escambia Bay oysters.
They have a real role in the restoration that's taking place throughout our Bay Systems.
A fully grown oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.
So the work that they're doing out on the farms there helps improve our water quality and it helps improve the habitat as a whole.
So it really requires that partnership with the culture operators.
So we all want to say thank you.
And all the best to you moving forward and stay in touch with us and let us know how things are going and we'll try to get that word out to everyone.
Well, more on the importance of oysters when in-studio returns.
You're watching WSRE TV PBS for the Gulf Coast.
We'll be right back.
This is in studio on WSRE TV.
Our topic, the humble oyster.
Chris Verlinde, Matt Posner and Logan McDonald are continuing on with us to discuss the road to recovery for oysters in our part of the world.
We're going to talk now more about recent developments and ongoing efforts in our area.
But in order to do that, I think we back up a little bit.
And we were talking about how things were a little bit different pre oil spill and then they've gotten considerably different post oil spill.
So talk to us a little bit about that, if you would, Chris.
Well, I think that, you know, like up until, you know, the oil spill, we basically, you know, had a fairly it wasn't I mean, at different times, it would be like a big industry.
It really did, you know, contribute to the economy.
There'd be as many as 20 500, say, oyster boats out on Escambia Bay, East Bay, you know, fishing for oysters.
And when the oil spill came, you know, there is a lot, of course.
So many unknowns and nothing.
You know, we didn't nobody ever really knew what to expect.
And so we that's kind of when things turned around.
After the oil spill, we started talking about restoration.
And, you know, there are a lot of needs as far as, like, you know, oystermen without jobs also.
And it wasn't just here in our area in the Pensacola Bay system, it was actually all the way from basically the big bend to Texas.
And and so so it had a really big impact.
And and people that, you know, worked on the water and then also people that supported it, the, you know, the people that bought the oysters and and things like that.
And so that from there, things kind of moved on.
So that was in, you know, 2010.
It was also a different time as far as, you know, our whole community, we didn't have as many developments, housing.
We still had people, but it was still, you know, especially Santa Rosa County was fairly small.
And so as things change, as things changed, you know, we not only had the development, you know, we oyster fishery was, you know, basically on the brink of collapse.
But we also had increased rainfall.
So there's been a lot of things that have kind of like taken aim, you know, at our oyster industry.
Prior to that, it was basically it'd be cyclic.
And you can look at, you know, graphs that actually show like what the poundage was that would be brought into the docks and that and it would go up, you know, and then be, you know, really good, maybe, you know, thousands or £100,000 or so and then come down during storms.
You know, I really can tell Ivan Opal, you know, all the way through that graph.
And that actually is in the documentary, too.
And so so some of that changed.
And then, you know, we were looking at, you know, there was a lot of that a lot of different pots of money available.
And there was the natural resource resource damage assessment, you know, funds and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences, they actually did receive a big pot of money to do some restoration in the local bays in Florida.
And so they, you know, spent about $1,000,000 on our bay and they just basically re culture added material that oysters like to sell out good to the to the existing reefs that we had.
And this was done in 2016.
And rather, you know, in the old times, you know, the only restoration that was done that was done by FDX or the Florida Department of AG and and so this was something kind of new.
We brought the oystermen together to kind of decide on what kind of material to use, because there were a lot of there wasn't a whole lot of availability of oyster shells.
And that's what oyster is really like.
And so we just we met and then we put down a a lot of number 58 limestone rock gravel.
That would grab onto.
And, you know, and since then, you know, there's been a lot of changes as firestorms also.
And so right now that's actually not even still in existence on the reefs.
The reefs are basically flat like we don't have relief in the old, you know, the old days the reefs would have relief and so that they would live higher in the water column and maybe have less impacts from things like dissolved oxygen.
So I think the other thing to keep in, keep in mind in this road to recovery is that, you know, the oil spill hit just a couple of years after the Great Recession.
So there really wasn't a ton of resources made available to local, state and federal agencies for restoration like this and for that additional data collection that's necessary to form restoration.
So the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, while a tragedy provided a great opportunity to provide what would hopefully be once in a generation financial resources to go towards this long term recovery.
And as a result, and after after the oil spill, with so much focus coming coming in to not only northwest Florida, but to oyster resources as a whole, we had the great fortune of the nature Conservancy in Florida focusing specifically on Pensacola Bay, realizing that there's been a global decline and collapse in certain areas of of of oyster habitat, that the northern Gulf Coast still was one of the few areas across the world that still had the potential for recovery.
And so we've seen that 85% decline historically in our oyster habitat.
We knew that that there could be a path forward if we dialed things in, dialed in our water quality issues, dialed in or our substrate issues that we have and brought everybody together to to focus on one consistent roadmap for for that recovery.
And so back in 2018, the Nature Conservancy in Florida spearheaded the development of oyster fishery and habitat management plan for Pensacola Bay, and that brought together over 25 stakeholders.
Whether that's folks from our local governments in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to state organizations like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and included many of the aquaculture and wild harvesters, folks, academia and other non-governmental organizations.
And so by bringing together those, those those partners from across the region, we were really able to set out on an action plan that could be undertaken for for the recovery.
And as a result of that, we were able to identify some of those critical data gaps that were necessary to plan this future future restoration efforts in that included a lot of coordination between the Nature Conservancy and Santa Rosa County to complete bottom type mapping to complete water filtration models, complete the habitat suitability model, all of these, you know, kind of behind the scenes efforts that are necessary before we start putting putting rock or shell on the water, too, to really gauge where we're going to have the most success for restoration.
And so that all came about pretty much as a result of a terrible, terrible situation that affected so many.
You know, again, it was it was a tragedy that, you know, we're fortunate to turn into an opportunity.
And we've as a result of having that plan now, we were able to get additional buy in for the restoration efforts across the region.
Since that plan was completed in 2021, we've since adopted the at the estuary program and encompass it as part of our comprehensive the conservation and Management Plan, which serves as kind of the overarching roadmap for Pensacola Bay.
So while all of these little steps, you know, may not make sense in the moment, they all lead up to a much greater effort for not only bringing in the funds to tackle these issues, but being able to track the success of these restoration projects.
Well, Logan, how do you like this is all news to me.
I think I keep up with things as much as possible.
But you you guys are all behind the scenes all the time.
How do you let our our people around know about this and and why it's so important?
So one of the things that was actually identified in the plan that the community members came together and developed was the need to tell the story, to make people aware of what we had in the past, what we've lost, and how we can work together to restore that and bring it back.
So this film that we hope folks are going to watch is the kind of first step to that story and letting people know, you know, what our area has seen and where we can go.
And then we hope they'll dove in deeper with us and learn even more.
Well, and I give you credit for sharing your your phrase, hope on the half shell.
Because because that's good.
I mean, we're we're nowhere near that, right.
But we're at least able to look to a future that we weren't before.
And and we'll go into that a little bit more detail.
But in addition to things like an oil and hurricanes, what other kinds of things have been challenges for our oysters in this area?
The water quality has been a huge challenge.
Matt talked, he spoke to the mapping efforts that went on and when he said that substrate, the bottom type, what they're doing is actually exploring the bottom of our base systems and seeing what is on the bottom.
So is there shell left where we used to have oyster reefs or is it covered in sediment and these deep layers where things can't survive under it?
And that helps us have a better understanding of where to restore reef, what kind of restoration we need to do.
Can we just put out Shell?
Do we need to build up off the mud bottom?
Do we need to choose a different location that has a better chance of success?
And so historically, a lot of those sediment issues that we heard about have buried some of those reefs.
So sedimentation issues have been a challenge.
And then for our farmers, water quality has also been a challenge.
There have been bacterial impairments in the water and due to continued impairments in certain areas of the bay, not the entire bay.
There has been a expansion of the prohibited shellfish harvest area that's regulated by FDA.
So we've been speaking of.
And so that means that folks can't harvest from those areas anymore.
And so that's a challenge.
You might have to relocate a farm, you might have to not harvest there if you're a wild harvester.
And so water quality is something we certainly need to improve to bring back that that thriving business that supports so many people.
Do you also want to know that the water quality challenges are something we need to work on?
But that doesn't mean that Pensacola oysters aren't safe to eat.
That's extremely regulated, and the folks that are pulling oysters out of the bay are doing it in places that are continuously, not continuously, but regularly monitored.
And oysters seem to be their own little filter.
So so, as you said, very highly regulated.
Logan was mentioning the sediment that gets in the bay.
That must be a huge challenge.
I know I've pulled up an anchor before and it's just been covered in what could possibly live in that.
How does that happen?
How do we combat that?
That's that's an ongoing problem.
Somebody comes from you know, we we're in an estuary.
So it's where freshwater and saltwater mix.
And then the excuse me, the freshwater, you know, naturally brings down some sediments.
But then we have a lot of erosion, you know, in the upper parts of the watershed, big gullies, and they just send large amounts of sediment down into our bays and bayous.
And if that doesn't, you know, move on through, it will cover our oysters.
But then also construction, that's not managed correctly with stormwater that can cause sediment to run right in our bays just to feed.
You know, if you've got in your in your yard, if you don't have vegetation on it, on that dirt, sand, whatever you have in there, fail goes right into our right in.
And that and that impacts oysters but then also other habitat and habitats too.
You know, we're officially eggs and seagrasses and things like that.
So it is a huge problem.
And I think that, you know, with the with the other work that we did to develop the plant and stuff too, we did a really good job of identifying, you know, the stressors on our system and specifically.
And so I'm really looking forward, you know, and to really move in the right direction, you know, bring back our oyster industry.
And so we're going to be talking plenty about that as well.
Just some of the things we've mentioned and we'll continue to mention that, that every day people that live here can do how important is that?
You know, we are a very old community and a lot of the water quality and habitat issues that we've had in the past were very acute that could be pointed to direct industry.
Fortunately, we've moved beyond that for the most part, and we still have remaining legacy issues.
But a lot of the issues that we're left with today are chronic, whether that's wastewater problems, stormwater problems, and having inadequate infrastructure to to maintain the water quality that we need for not only oyster harvesting, but for recreational purposes as well.
So that's why we're really focused.
You know, it really is a an all encompassing issue that we're tackling here.
And so we can focus on on the restoration itself.
But we have to have water quality, adequate water quality to go along with that.
And that's an action that every citizen and visitor to the area can play a part in to make sure that we achieve that for the long term.
And we'll talk more about that in our segment coming up.
We're going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we'll tell you about that hope on the horizon we've been building up to.
We've got some ways that you can join the efforts to help restore some of our natural resources.
You're watching in studio on WSRE TV.
Stay right here.
Oysters are what we call a keystone species.
A keystone is the top of the Roman arch that holds everything together.
You take that stone out and the whole arch will fall.
Same goes with oysters.
It's very vital to have a healthy oyster population.
They are your baseline for the health of the base system.
They filter a huge amount of water.
So if you've got a healthy oyster population, they're filtering thousands and thousands of gallons of water every day continuously.
The oyster reefs and the beds that we have, they're basically like condos.
So they provide life, habitat, food and shelter for so many different types of not only, you know, fish, but also invertebrates.
A lot of small little crabs, worms things like that.
So that's where that sturdy building blocks basically of the the ecosystem is.
And then from there, you know, it's just that it has a whole food chain movement.
You have, you know, little baby things that larger fish like to eat and things like that.
Then of course, people like we depend on these resources.
And so it's basically the bottom of the food chain and that does provide so many benefits.
They also help protect shorelines from, you know, wind erosion and water.
They really should also and so they're really they're really beneficial, not only for their food source, but also because of their biological benefits.
This is in studio on WSRE TV, PBS for the Gulf Coast.
Our topic, hope on the horizon for the humble oyster.
Logan McDonald, Matt Partner and Chris Verlinde, they are ready to share with us some ongoing and upcoming restoration efforts, as well as some imperative calls to action.
So we were just watching a little bit of an award nominated film, Emmy Award nominated, Southeast Emmy Award nominated film, which our viewers can see.
And that's something that's part of this call to action, correct?
So a big part of improving and restoring our local waterways and our oysters is making people aware of the work we need to do in what condition they're in as well as the forecast and next steps and hopes for the future.
And I'm understanding, as with many things, that money is very imperative.
It's critical for advancing these large scale restoration efforts.
And, you know, back over the last couple of years, as we've been developing this management plan that we talked about earlier, we set out recently on a goal of restoring 1500 acres of oyster habitat in the next ten years in the Pensacola based system, which is a very lofty goal.
But fortunately, there's been resources, financial resources like never before.
And most recently, we're the recipients of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or Noah Habitat Restoration Grant that will bring in $11 million for oyster habitat restoration over the next four years.
And with that, we will fully design this large scale restoration effort, 1500 acres.
That can be hard to imagine.
That's about 1500 football fields worth of oysters over over that ten year period.
And then in the next four years, the goal is primarily focused on restoring up to 245 acres in in-water restoration work.
So we're talking about some real legacy improvements coming up in the Pensacola Bay system.
And what is that going to mean for the Pensacola Bay System and Santa Rosa County and all of these areas, Chris?
Well, I think that, you know, of course, we'll have cleaner water because we'll hopefully increase oyster population.
We'll have wild harvesters working along with aquaculture farmers.
I think that, you know, we'll have natural resources that are in good condition.
And so I think that people, you know, we'll be able to take time and actually enjoying these resources and that.
And, of course, we'll have oysters on every plate in the area.
Sounds like utopia.
We're working toward that.
So we can't imagine that until you put it in football fields.
That's a lot.
That's a lofty, lofty situation.
And thought, there it is.
And it takes a lot of oyster shell to do that restoration.
So one of the things that folks can do is support restaurants that recycle their oyster shell through different recycling shell programs.
And that shell provides basically a surface for that oyster during its larval stage to settle on.
So if we don't have that, we have to provide something for it to settle on.
And so we can all recycle our shell, ask our local restaurants if we don't see them recycling their shell, you know.
Is this something you would be interested in and doing to give back to our community?
And is that something that people could get a hold of you to find out more about the oyster sell, oyster shell recycling?
And that's actually another component of this large scale new grant that was just received is to keep the estuaries, the oyster shell recycling program, going over the next 3 to 4 years.
So we've had great participation and this is really thanks to Chris and then a group called Franklins Promise that has been working in the area over the last few years.
Really, one is a workforce opportunity for young adults in our community to be engaged in the actual restoration efforts.
And so in addition to to supporting the show recycling program, you know, of course, we support oyster harvesting and aquaculture all across the Gulf Coast.
But I encourage those that are watching the next time they're out at a at a local restaurant and ask for oysters for them to ask where those oysters are from, because we want to see more and more local oysters on the menu in our local restaurants.
And so the more people ask about it, the more we can see our local restaurant owners supporting supporting that and their restaurants.
And then the more oysters that are grown locally, the better odds we have at improving our water quality as well.
Yeah, so it's just this complete cycle.
You've talked a lot about cycles and one thing you've mentioned is money coming in from the Nature Conservancy.
And for me I've always sent them some money, but I thought they were just helping butterflies up somewhere else or, you know, restoring.
I never knew that they were coming in here.
How did we get on their radar?
You know, I think.
Hard to say.
I'm not sure.
I'm curious because I mean, obviously, somebody must have said something and this is critical to this area.
I think part of it had to do with the oil spill.
And the Nature Conservancy has long had a presence in the state of Florida.
But again, with so much emphasis on restoration and opportunities in northwest Florida at the time, T and C brought in a great local that's a good friend to all of us.
There would be Drew, who served as their primary liaison to this region and made sure that those priorities were connected to the TNC, not only the Florida chapter, but but across their global network.
And, you know, from that point forward, we've had great relationships, and Burch is one of our biggest, biggest contacts over there and has continued to see that expansion.
So we've got a little bit of time in this block.
Are there what are some of the other things that you want to talk about as far as calls to action for our community?
So one of the other things that folks can do is think about at their daily lives, at home, things that may impact our local waters, that they might not think of.
So if you think of oyster shell recycling, you might make that connection of, Oh yeah, this is an oyster.
It's going to help grow more oysters.
But things like maintaining your septic system and make sure you're checking that regularly if you have one, or if you have the ability to switch to a sewer system, can help us sort of get some of those bacterial issues under control, especially if you're in a coastal area.
We talked a little bit about things you can do in your yard if you're going to fertilize, you want to make sure you're not going to do it right before a rainstorm or not within ten feet of a water body and then, as most of us are doing, if you're going out and mowing your lawn or whatever you have growing out in your yard, you want to make sure those clippings aren't being left on the street.
You want to put those back into your yard so you can sweep them up.
You can use a blower and make sure you're not leaving any clippings or fertilizer pellets because those aren't done on your yard.
They're going to make their way into our storm drains and eventually into our waters.
And that can cause too many nutrients and and other issues in our waterways as well.
What about talking to some of the people in government that are around?
Does that does that help?
Does anyone want to speak to that?
I mean, absolutely.
You know, I think if you were to compare our region ten years ago from where it is now, the conversations about not only oyster restoration but water quality as a whole are, kind of top of mind for both the residents of the area, but also for our elected officials.
And so that's an ongoing, you know, educational effort for for all of our decision makers, both at the local level on up to the state and federal agencies.
But we know we're really starting to see those investments being made in the two county area that is is having an impact and allows all of our partners to be able to leverage resources to see some of these larger scale restoration efforts be undertaken.
And so, Chris, what do you see as our biggest hope on the half shell here?
Just looking at the entire situation.
I hope that, you know, with this, you know, initial funding that we do, you know, bring back our oyster, you know, wild harvest, which may take a little bit longer, but, you know, increase habitat a lot along the bay systems.
I think that one of the big things, too, is that what we've really seen like as a community, too, is the partnerships that have made this successful, like working with the estuary program and having a potential national estuary program here in our areas would be, you know, wonderful.
And I think that, you know, I think that people are listening and paying attention.
I hope that families get to go out into these areas and actually enjoy and get outside more.
And there's a lot you know, there's a lot in our area to see and to love.
So do you start with the children in your education?
We do a lot of different educational program.
We're actually offering a program to local teachers and they're going to get $1,000 stipend to come out with us for a basically a weeklong summer camp to learn all about oysters from oyster harvesters, from different restoration specialists, and be able to take that back into the classroom with their students the following year.
And we're going to be able to support the cost of their field trips and supplies.
Substitute teachers, name it.
We really want to make sure that these teachers and students have the resources to learn not just concepts broadly, but with the local context and have local case studies that they can understand these issues applied to their own backyards.
Well, I wish I were a teacher right now, because what a wonderful opportunity that that is.
We've just got about 2 minutes here.
Are there any final thoughts that any of you have that you want to add to our show today?
The Humble Oyster.
That's quite a name right there.
Where did that come from?
It actually came from our producers for Mississippi State TV, television Center.
And the idea of, you know, a little one little oyster.
Some people may not think much about it, but the big role they play in our and our local waters but in our communities as well.
And I think that's a great connection for rethink about the steps that we all can take in our daily lives.
But also, we we are fortunate to have some large grant funding available, but that only addresses, you know, a portion of the restoration we'd like to see so we can think of ourselves as a humble part of that community as well.
And if folks are able to make a contribution to support that work, it can have a large scale impact.
So the humble oyster.
You know, I think as we're wrapping up, think back to the to what Chief Dan said earlier about, you know, restoration isn't necessary if we haven't lost respect for the resource.
And that's an ongoing campaign interaction that happens with our residents and our visitors.
And so by no means is everybody, you know, perfect are the decisions that are being made, you know, perfect.
There's there's work to to still be had.
We can't let off the gas in terms of the restoration efforts, but we know that there is tremendous opportunity for this region from an environmental restoration standpoint, from an economic standpoint as well.
Chris Verlinde Well, I want to thank all of you.
It's been very enlightening and I encourage everybody to learn more about it.
So thank you again to our guests on this edition of In Studio, Matt Posner, Logan McDonald and .
Thank you so much.
And special thanks to our earlier guests.
Chief Dan Skyhorse Helms history professor Dr. Brian Rucker and oyster farmer Shaina Alford.
We've been discussing the huge importance of oysters to area water.
So more information on this topic can be found at estuary 121. com.
Or you can simply Google Pensacola and Perdido Bay's estuary programs.
You can also find links to the award nominated film The Humble Oyster Online.
So if you'd like to share this program with your friends and family, or perhaps watch it again yourself, please go to WSRE.org And as a parting thought, it is important to remember that whether you enjoy them bay door on the half shell or you don't eat them at all.
Healthy oysters need to thrive in our area waters to help improve the quality of life for just about everyone.
I'm Sherry Hemming, House Weeks.
Thank you so much for watching.
We'll see you on a future edition of In Studio.
Until then, take care.