oyster string

Katie Nichols with Orange County Coastkeeper, right, hands out strings of oyster shells to Kerri Tande at that Yacht Club in Long Beach on Saturday, Feb. 20.

A marine science experiment is underway in the Alamitos Bay, with boaters from the Long Beach Yacht Club giving a helping hand to the Orange County Coastkeeper for a project that hopes to boost spawning of the once-abundant Olympia oyster.

The hope is oyster shells hanging from strings that the boaters helped distribute around the bay on Saturday, Feb. 20, will be an enticing home for Olympia oyster larvae to spawn and create a healthy habitat where they can thrive.

The Orange County Coastkeeper project also teamed up with the California State Coastal Conservancy and Cal State Long Beach students to hand out about 40 oyster shell strings, with another 40 or so planned to be dispersed again next weekend.

Some boaters showed up to scoop up the foot-long strings in a drive-by format, while others walked up on the docks to get their strings — all had signed up in 10-minute increments to adhere to distancing requirements.

Their task was to hang the strings from docks throughout the Jack Dunster Marine Reserve.

“We figured we have a lot of boats and slips, and they have a lot of oysters,” Mike Gehring, a co-chair of the LBYC Cruiser committee, said of the win-win project. “We all want the water to be clean in the Alamitos Bay, so it’s a good synergy … from a selfish boater point of view, they help get the water clean.”

But he also knows it’s important for the ecosystem.

The idea is one of many ways Orange County Coastkeeper is experimenting with oyster shells, not just to help revive the Olympia oyster species, but also to help battle erosion in wetlands areas of Alamitos Bay and the Newport Back Bay, which are among the few remaining estuaries that exist along the coast.

The boaters quickly filled up the two-hour time slots for pickup and were glad to give a helping hand to Orange County Coastkeeper’s efforts.

“It’s just one of the things we do to help the community around us,” Gehring said.

“They have their habitats, but they are limited geographically,” he said. “With the boaters, it really widens up where the oysters can go, to help the next generation. We hope to continue this and get it bigger every year.”

Each string has about 15 Pacific oyster shells, placed on them by students at Woodrow Wilson High School during a girls’ empowerment workshop at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point and with the help of students from Cal State Long Beach.

“Juvenile oysters, or larvae, they can settle on any kind of hard substrate like a dock or pier piling,” said Katie Nichols, restoration program director for Orange County Coastkeeper. “But they like the habitat of other shells, even though it’s a different species, the structure of it is really complex. There’s nooks and crannies to settle on.”

Clean Pacific oyster shells are used for the strings. Placing the oyster shells in the bay allows locally produced native oyster larvae to grow, providing a new habitat for the larvae. After they spawn in about 30 to 45 days, volunteers will retrieve the shell strings from the docks.

The Coastkeeper team will then take the young oysters and put them in existing mudflats, part of a community oyster restoration site in the Jack Dunster Marine Reserve.

“Over time, if you get more native oysters there, you’ll have stabilization, as well as a food source and habitat for other critters,” Nichols said.

Oysters have an important role in the aquatic ecosystem, filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day and helping eelgrass, another wetlands inhabitant, thrive, according to Orange County Coastkeeper.

“Ecologically, oysters serve as indicators of overall health of the environment and, in the form of beds, provide habitat for attracting fish, crustaceans and other marine life,” the group explained when announcing the project. “Restored native Olympia oyster beds provide valuable habitat for estuarine organisms, as well as contribute to improving water quality in Alamitos Bay. Oysters are ecosystem engineers — if they thrive, other species will too.”

Since the turn of the century, a number of factors have had a negative impact on the Olympia oyster species, including over-harvesting, coastal development, destruction of wetlands and water pollution. Today, only small pockets of the population remain.

Last year, about 30 volunteers gathered in the Alamitos Bay to help expand the oyster habitat by placing in the mudflats hundreds of pounds of clean Pacific oyster shells and a mesh made from coconut husks. A similar living shoreline project was done in the Upper Newport Bay in 2015.

Restoration of oyster beds also is critical to the resilience of the Alamitos Bay and Newport Bay ecosystems, helping to bring in more fish and wildlife. Oysters provide habitat and refuge for other organisms, such as octopus, crabs and juvenile fish that take shelter on the structure that oyster beds provide.

The oysters also serve as filter feeders before water flows into bays and eventually into the ocean.

The past year has been challenging for organizations such as Orange County Coastkeeper, with volunteer efforts and gatherings hindered by pandemic restrictions. The pandemic delayed this oyster project for several months.

Popular projects such as beach clean ups, which typically draw hundreds of people to help remove trash, have been put on hold.

Still, workers are keeping tabs on important projects. In December, they were able to go out and check on the Newport Back Bay oyster habitat to monitor progress.

“There’s been some challenges, but we’re still able to do our sampling and monitoring we usually do, but it just looks different,” Nichols said, noting changes such as keeping distances and wearing masks. “We’re still able to go out and do what we need to do.”

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