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Oyster Roast to Oyster Reef

Georgia oysters aren't quite as neat as these, but their clumped, rocklike shells make great nursery environments for marine organisms. (Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Early this spring, I kicked off the season at the Georgia Conservancy's oyster roast near Savannah, Ga. I'd never seen so many oysters in my life -- huge metal drums of them steaming away and large buckets of gritty-shelled clumps waiting invitingly on outdoor tables. Underneath each table, though, was a third container, one overflowing with the long, narrow shells characteristic of Georgia's intertidal oysters.

But the heaps of shells weren't bound for the trash. Instead, they'd be trucked away to a shell recycling center, cured, bagged in mesh netting and eventually dropped off at selected coastal spots to create new reefs, all courtesy of GEORGIA, or Generating Enhanced Oyster Reefs in Georgia's Inshore Areas, part of UGA's Marine Extension Service.

The new reefs will help buffer Georgia's muddy estuaries, protecting the delicate salt marsh from the eroding force of waves and boat wakes. They'll also provide a hard substrate for oyster larvae and other species to settle on during the spawning season and grow. More reefs make more oysters, which, in turn, improve the quality of the marsh by filtering out pollutants and algae. After the reefs are established, the marine service continues to monitor them for quality.

It's all part of a push to not only stabilize Georgia's intertidal areas, but to reestablish what was once a major state industry in a more sustainable manner. Today, the Georgia oyster market is almost entirely limited to local roasts like the one put on by the Georgia Conservancy. Overharvesting, overdevelopment, disease and sedimentation led to major depletion across the coast. But with slow rebuilding and creative fishery management, it's possible the beds could return.

In the meantime, if you're having a major oyster roast in Georgia (one bigger than 10 bushels), the Marine Extension Service would like to know -- it might be able to organize a shell collection for you. If you're in a coastal area, you can also leave your spent shells at a drop-off location where they'll be bagged up by volunteers. To coastal readers -- does anyone else know of similar state programs?

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