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    The crab traps used for the oyster project will be anchored in clusters at mid-tide level along the shoreline to permit passage of wildlife between them. Oyster reefs have proven to be better than traditional bulkheads like rock and concrete in resisting erosion during tropical storms and hurricanes. The beds naturally rise as sea level rises, creating vertical barriers. Once the beds are established, spartina grass will be planted behind them on the beach restoring the marsh habitat for other wildlife. Submitted Photo

New oyster beds planned for Old Town shoreline

The St. Marys Riverkeeper has identified an eroding section of shoreline directly in front of Old Town Fernandina as the site for a living shoreline initiative to restore an oyster reef likely destroyed by wave action from boat traffic. The restoration project is scheduled to start in April.

“The goal of this project is to establish a wave break that will halt or slow erosion of the marsh while simultaneously providing oyster habitat and reestablishing lost marsh vegetation,” according to Riverkeeper Anna Laws. The reef will stretch along 1,500 feet of shoreline from Egans Creek to the WestRock paper mill. The property is owned by CSX Railroad.

“The process of getting permission for the project (through governmental regulation entities) has been the same as if we wanted to build a marina here,” commented Laws.

Crab traps will be adapted to serve as the foundation for the reef. They will be coated with a thin cement slurry to recruit oyster growth. Attached old oyster shells will provide even more surface to which larvae can attach. The 2-by-2-foot traps will be secured to one another in clusters and anchored five feet apart to permit wildlife passage between them. Placement will be identified by metal rods extending above the high water mark over the traps. Rick Frey, the founding St. Marys Riverkeeper, points out this method has been used successfully in Georgia and South Carolina.

Consulting on the project is retired oysterman Dan DeGuire, who has been working for the past 10 years on related projects under the guidance of the University of Georgia.

While the initial plan was to use derelict crab traps obtained through the Coastal Conservation Association’s regular “trap rodeos” that clear waterways of dysfunctional traps around the state, time constraints and underestimates of the number of traps needed means they will need to purchase and build new traps as well. They now estimate a total of 700 traps will be needed.

There is a feeling of urgency surrounding the project because the life cycle of an oyster from fertilization to setting takes place within 14 to 21 days. Spawning is triggered by seasonal warming of the water, and April is anticipated to be the peak time for spawning.

Volunteers will be preparing the traps at a staging area in the old Pogey Plant in preparation for the launch.

While the organization raised funds from grants, community donors and The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island in advance of the project, they will need additional funding for more traps.

Joseph Murphy, director of public relations at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, said the hotel chain teamed up with St. Marys Riverkeeper after searching for an environmental project to support as part of the organization’s Community Footprints program. Murphy added the hotel has recently added a naturalist on staff at the resort.

“We are all about preserving this wonderful environment we have on Amelia Island,” he said.  The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is promoting an “Adopt a Riverkeeper Crabtrap” initiative to gain donations for the Old Town Living Shoreline. Donations of any size are appreciated and tax deductible. Donations of $100 or more will receive a certificate of appreciation and be provided the location of their sponsored trap. For more information, go to stmarysriverkeeper.org.

The project also entails the planting of spartina grass on the landward side of the wave break structures. Seeds from existing plants at the site have been gathered and given to high school students in agricultural and environmental science programs for germination and propagation.  Not only are students propagating marsh vegetation, they are also involved in routine water quality testing in Camden and Nassau counties.

St. Marys Riverkeeper is in its fourth year as an organization and is one of 300 such organizations in the world licensed by the Waterkeeper Alliance of New York.

The title of Riverkeeper was turned over to Laws in January, but Frey remains active as a volunteer. Laws is the organization’s only paid staff member.

Among the Riverkeeper’s responsibilities is regular testing of water quality in area waterways. Although oysters can be harvested commercially in parts of Georgia as close as the northern end of Cumberland Island, according to DeGuire, the Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach area has been closed to commercial harvest for more than two years because of pollution. Oysters are hardy and can survive pollution, but since a single oyster filters about 50 gallons of water a day, pollutants accumulate in their flesh. The primary pollutant is E. coli, bacteria found in human fecal material. St. Mary’s Riverkeeper is currently working toward the replacement of 20 defective septic systems in Camden County.

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