The demonstration is part of a collaboration between the Florida Reserve, OysterCorps, Rattlesnake Cove Oyster Company, Florida Department of Agriculture, and FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory. The students have an aquaculture lease in Apalachicola Bay where they will plant, care for, and harvest oysters while documenting the project and sharing their experiences with the community over the past year.
OysterCorps is a training academy based within the Conservation Corps of the Forgotten and Emerald Coasts (CCFEC). The program aims to restore oyster habitats, build coastal resilience to climate change, and foster economic diversification through aquaculture. OysterCorps participants are young people ages 17-25 (and veterans up to 29) who reside in the Florida Panhandle. Participants who complete the program earn a series of certifications, more than 700 hours of hands-on field experience, and an AmeriCorps education award.
Aquaculture is an increasingly important source of safe, nutritious and sustainable seafood for people around the world. Globally, aquaculture production must double by 2030 to keep pace with demand. These increases in demand for aquaculture products, food security considerations and job creation have generated an increased need for skilled workers.
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The program is made possible by a grant from NOAA and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). The eeBLUE Aquaculture Literacy grant will allow OysterCorps students to learn about the opportunities, challenges and benefits of oyster farming through direct engagement with local experts.
At the end of October, Todd Bracken and Jeff Wren, owners of Rattlesnake Cove Oyster Company, showed students how to build aquaculture cages and in a few sessions they built 60 cages (25 14mm cages and 35 18mm cages) . The cages are constructed from a sturdy plastic mesh bent into a rectangle and fitted with floats.
In December 2021, 17 students visited their lease for the first time aboard the Reserve research vessel, the Tideline. Led by Bracken and Wren, the students distributed 21,000 juvenile oysters among the ten cages. These cages were secured and then deployed by the students on their lease under the watchful eye of FDACS staff and reserve staff. The average size of juvenile oysters was 6 to 8 mm.
At the end of January 2022, students traveled to the lease to tend to the oysters and divide them into new cages to reduce density so the oysters could grow. They transferred the oysters from 9mm bags to 14mm square mesh bags. The average size of oysters had increased to 1.5 inches, with several observed at 2 inches. While tending to the lease, the students observed a diversity of other marine organisms present on the lease – stone crabs, blue crabs, mud crabs, blennies and herbivorous shrimp lived in or around the cages .
The students have been taking care of the lease since last year. They have documented their progress and will share what they have learned with the community through presentations at community events and via social media. Franklin County High School students plan to visit the lease where OysterCorps students will share lessons learned with their peers.