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"This is progress": Environmental nonprofit sets out to restore Florida's declining oyster habitats

Conservation project restores oyster habitats
Florida conservation effort helps restore oysters and their ecosystem 03:55

Florida's Gulf Coast has been in rough shape for oysters. Decades of decline in oyster reefs — 85% globally, over the last two centuries — coupled with the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico left the once-rich oyster beds sparse.

"We didn't see the materials in the bay system that oysters needed to settle on to grow a reef," Anne Birch, Florida's marine program manager for the environmental nonprofit the Nature Conservancy, told CBS News.

The BP oil spill in 2010, when gallons of crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, exacerbated the decline, she said. A judge found the oil company criminally and civilly liable for the incident and ordered it to fund $20 billion in compensation for affected states like Florida. 

In Pensacola, the global conservation group is trying to reverse the oyster decline with a multi-million-dollar habitat restoration project. 

Even though oil never reached certain Gulf waters, the fund paid $13 million to restore oyster reefs. Cranes on barges began building them late last year. 

"It is really important to use that money in a way that will restore the system that was harmed," Birch said. 

The Nature Conservancy in 2021 set out to build 33 reefs along approximately 6.5 miles of Santa Rosa County shoreline. By August of this year, the nonprofit accomplished that goal using more than 61,000 tons of limestone rock and recycled oyster shell. 

And eight months after the first reefs were constructed, the Nature Conservancy reported oysters were already growing on the rock. 

"This is exactly what we want to see," Birch said, displaying a rock from one of the new reefs with 10 creatures settled onto it.

"This is progress," she said. "That means there's oyster spat in the water and larvae in the water. All they needed was something to settle on."

The recently settled creatures are not for harvesting and are only for habitats. Pasco Gibson, a commercial fisherman who grew up on waters off of Florida's Panhandle, said there was no community pushback to the restriction. 

"I don't want to see the place I grew up — where I still make a living — go away," he said, adding that he's "already noticing a big difference."

Gibson said he used to feed his family with oysters, but that it stopped a decade ago. He said he hopes commercial fishermen will see fish in greater numbers by next summer. 

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