Planting oysters

Biodegradable coconut coir netting was used Saturday to hold Pacific oyster shells that will attract Olympia oyster larvae at the Jack Dunster Marine Reserve in Marine Stadium.

Ostrea lurida, meet Crassostrea gigas.

This isn’t a match made on some social media dating site. Actually, it is the work of Orange County Coastkeeper, the Costa Mesa group that seeks to protect the region’s water resources so they are swimmable, drinkable and fishable for present and future generations.

Last Saturday, members of Coastkeeper and about 35 volunteers got together to bring together the Olympia oyster (ostrea lurida) and the Pacific oyster (crassostrea gigas) in the Jack Dunster Marine Reserve in Alamitos Bay.

The goal is to create an environment that will encourage the settlement of Olympia oysters in the bay and thus stabilize the shoreline, improve water quality and create a valuable habitat, not only for the oysters but other organisms.

In other words, if you build it, they will come.

Historically, Southern California has used concrete walls to protect coastlines from erosion, but Coastkeeper, along with researchers from Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton — and thanks to funding from the Coastal Conservancy — are opting for a natural alternative.

“We are laying down clean Pacific oyster shells on a biodegradable coconut coir net,” said Katie Nichols, restoration program director for Coastkeeper. “Other projects have use nettings made out of plastic, so this is one of the first projects to use coconut netting.”

Nichols said the Dunster Marine Reserve is the perfect place for this project because the mudflats are protected and accessible.

“We are building the right environment for the oyster to come back,” she said. “The good news is there is already a remnant population on the pier's pilings. Our collaborators were here in 2012 and 2015, so we also wanted to revisit what we did in the past.”

Volunteers donned gloves and boots to wade into the mudflat and fill various nets with about 5,000 pounds of clean oyster shells on which the Olympia oyster can settle.

“We get the shells from an aqua-farm,” said Dr. Christine Whitcraft, a professor in Biological Sciences and director of Environmental Science and Policy at Cal State Long Beach. “Clean oyster shells are shells that have been cured for a year. That simply means that we let the shells sit outside in the sun not touching any water and by the time that’s done, they’re clean of any tissue or even other organism.”

The Jack Dunster Marine Biological Reserve is a 2.7-acre site containing a little more than an acre of shallow water constructed on the northwest side of the Los Cerritos Channel adjacent to the Rowing Center at Marine Stadium.

According to a 2014 story in the Press-Telegram, an idea for the land was conceived by Dunster, a Long Beach resident of more than 40 years who had a wide-ranging background in aquatics and was an advocate for waterfront activities. Dunster became involved with the Marine Advisory Commission, which sets policy and regulation for marinas and land surrounding them. As a member of the commission, he was appointed to spearhead the project to create the reserve.

Whitcraft said there is scientific data to support this matchmaking process.

“The young Olympia larvae are in the waters surrounding the reserve starting in April or May,” she said. “Those larvae are looking for some sort of queue to settle. What we found is this species doesn’t choose, or like, riff raff or rocks or dock pilings in the same way it likes shells and so we provide them with a shell that’s made of calcium carbonate. There is something about that chemistry that signals them to stop here. So, when we put those shells down on the mud, we are giving them a place to settle.”

The groups will check the progress of their efforts in six months.

While an increase in oysters will stabilize the sediment, improve water quality and the habitat for a lot of different organisms, the end goal is not human consumption.

“We don’t want the oysters to be eaten,” Whitcraft said. “Our goal is to create habitat, habitat for the oysters, but also protection for the land behind it.”

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