By Margie Plunkett
Volunteers will gather along the Lantana Nature Preserve shore on Hypoluxo Island in December with nets in hand not to fish, but to build an oyster reef.
Intended to attract juvenile fish and to provide other environmental benefits, it will be the first restoration project of its kind for Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resource Management.
Lantana, ERM and the West Palm Beach Fishing Club will build the oyster reef on a tentatively scheduled day in mid-December. The groups plan to truck 24 tons of fossilized shells to Bicentennial Park that day, which volunteers will use to fill 1,000 to 1,600 nylon mesh bags measuring about 3 feet by 8 inches and weighing 25 pounds.
The bags will then be trucked to the Lantana Preserve shoreline, where they’ll be placed under the mangrove canopy to create the reef.
The fossilized shells, which are 7,000 to 9,000 years old, are only the beginning of the reef. “They’re the next best thing to shell you would find in a restaurant,” said ERM’s Ginny Powell, who presented the plan to Town Council at its Oct. 12 meeting.
The bags, which will be covered at high tide, but visible at low tide, provide a hard surface that allows the young oysters — or spat — floating in the lake a place to attach. Lake Worth has about 4.2 acres of oysters at its center.
In addition to creating an environment for fish and invertebrates to live and feed in, oyster reefs also provide food for wading birds. And adult oysters contribute to clear water — one adult can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, according to the ERM — that can benefit the murky Intracoastal waters.
While the oyster reef restoration project is the first for ERM here, a different project was done under docks in the Loxahatchee River, Powell said.
Lantana Town Council voted unanimously at its meeting to proceed with the project. “We have a lot of people interested in this project and anticipate there’s going to be good participation, ” Powell said.
Once the county receives a permit for the project, it will make the event date definite.
The ERM held a successful test day to run through the process of bagging the fossilized shells. Fourteen volunteers completed 350 bags of shells in 2.5 hours. “It’s a tough job,” Powell said, “and it might need several layers of workers.”
Residents raised some questions at the Town Council meeting about the project’s environmental impact. Richard Slosberg and council member Elizabeth Tennyson were concerned about nylon mesh issues, including pollution, entanglement risks and biodegradability. And resident Malcolm Balfour, who supported the project, said while the oysters will clean the Intracoastal during dry season, nothing will clear up the waterway when the C-51 canal dumps into it during rainy season.
Tom Twyford of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club countered that the state Department of Environmental Protection would not have approved the project if it had concerns.
Dr. Lynn Moorhouse helped move the project along, telling his fellow council members that in his experience, artificial reef projects are very difficult to do, so the town should move ahead now while there is momentum.
Despite the concerns, Ilona Balfour, a director of the Nature Preserve board, hopes the reef will enhance the preserve. The county has no plans to harvest the oysters to claim their traditional loot: pearls. “We told them since it’s right in our backyard, we’re going to have first dibs on the pearls,” Balfour said.
Mary Kate Leming contributed to this story.