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Pearls in the Lagoon: Oyster Restoration Brings Good Fishing, Great Vibes

Project brings the promise of brighter days on Mosquito Lagoon and beyond.

Pearls in the Lagoon: Oyster Restoration Brings Good Fishing, Great Vibes

Oyster shell is added to a restoration site through a unique partnership of CCA Florida and the University of Central Florida. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Linda Walters/CEELAB)

  • Restoration photos courtesy of Dr. Linda Walters/CEELAB

I stood in my kayak and gently paddled along a wall of black mangroves. I wanted to give the area a close look. The water was much cleaner here, in the lee of 20-knot winds. After moving about 80 feet, I spied a chunky redfish nosed toward the mangrove roots. I crouched to set the paddle on deck and pick up a rod. The red spotted my movement and spooked before I could cast. It left in a boil of mud, like a squid squirting ink.

I continued in this manner, flushing a second red. But given the conditions, I was hardly despondent. I now had confidence. There were fish here.

Returning to the head of the cove, I spied small baitfish flickering near a long oyster bar paralleling the shoreline. I shifted strategy and blind cast as I drifted through the area. I could see the oysters and the mangrove shoreline made a kind of funnel for the tide. Didn’t take long to connect. Fish on! Was it one of the reds I’d seen? Kaan Orer, my fishing partner for the day, regarded it as a pretty good one as I held it up to show him.

fs-mosquito-kayakwideview
Kayak angler Kaan Orer casts by one of the restored oyster bar near Edgewater.

Kaan, an avid angler, kayak guide and YouTuber, and I were fishing a series of oyster bars near the north end of Mosquito Lagoon in East Central Florida. It was a windy, cloudy day, hardly ideal conditions, but we had something going for us. Greg Harrison, the Habitat Chairman for Coastal Conservation Association Florida, had brought us here to inspect oyster reefs Harrison and his circle of friends have been nurturing for going on 17 years.

Oysters are super important to the area. Their colonies provide habitat and foraging stations for redfish and other gamefish. They are classic orientation points for anglers. Less obvious to the casual observer, oysters are filter feeders and help clean the water. The latter job has taken on great significance in recent years, as people have mobilized around efforts to limit nutrients and restore seagrass on coastal estuaries like this one. In the 1990s, when I began fishing here, Mosquito Lagoon was a Nirvana for anyone wanting to sight fish reds and seatrout. It took a bad turn starting around 2011, when green and brown algae blooms snuffed the photosynthetic life out of the grass. Dingy water became the norm, the rare cleanups revealing what anglers describe as a moonscape.

Seagrass was always seen as intrinsic to the fishery of the Lagoon, and a keystone species, shoal grass, Halodule wrightii—finally seems to be making a comeback. The St. Johns River Water Management District, tasked with monitoring the grass, indicated an increase in coverage from 6 percent in the summer of 2022 to 20 percent in the summer of 2023. That’s still paltry compared to the good old days, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Sources at the District attribute the grass recovery to broad efforts to clean up the Lagoon and its wider basin. The cultivated oyster bar Kaan and I were fishing happens to be a part of that. Stormwater treatment marshes are being built, sewage systems upgraded, flood control canals rerouted, politicians awakened. Governor DeSantis recently announced $100 million annually earmarked for projects aimed at reducing nutrients in the Lagoon. Amid the hubbub, tiny larval oysters, drifting on the tides, are settling on shells Harrison and his cohorts have placed in strategic corners of Mosquito Lagoon.

Oyster restoration work has been guided and well-documented by Dr. Linda Walters and her team at the University of Central Florida Coastal and Estuarine Ecology Lab (CEELAB). Walters attributes funding for the work to the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, CCA Florida, UCF, and the Disney Conservation Fund.

It’s a remarkably simple process: Put down mats laced with oyster shell sourced from restaurant discards. Allow larval oysters to colonize this ideal surface. Recruit human volunteers to help build and place more mats.

How did Greg Harrison get his feet wet? Harrison has a background as a Navy diver and worked in recovering boosters out of the Canaveral launch zones. In the early 2000s, he was living in Indialantic and recalls reading a piece in a Nature Conservancy publication about building oyster mats.

kayak angler with sea trout
A little informal fisheries survey of oyster restoration sites yielded an inshore slam for Jeff Weakley.

He contacted the people involved and joined up to volunteer. “It turned wild, turned into a 2 o’clock in the morning beach party,” he recalled. Greg would eventually move to Orlando, and through social tides bumped into Dr. Walters. “Linda said to me, ‘You’re the guy!’ She had heard about it. The story had traveled about our party.”

Now a ReMax agent in Orlando, Harrison regards work on the oyster restoration as his primary passion. He’s also a CCA Florida Life Member and Habitat Committee chairman.

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On any given day, you might find him covered to his knees in cement or looking over the deck of a pontoon boat at a stack of oyster mats.

“Once I saw what Linda and her students were doing, I was all in!” he said. “This is all science-based; the stuff we do is monitored and improved upon and studied."

“When we started, we were making oyster mats using aquafarming grade plastic,” Harrison recalled. “Now, we’re using a biodegradable byproduct of potato chip manufacturing to make mats. We use an 18- by 18-inch grid, and we have several partners who drill discarded oyster shells for us—one of them is the Brevard Zoo. We attach 36 shells on each grid, and try to get them oriented to face up like a catcher’s mitt, so any baby oysters—or spat—floating in the water column will find the substrate and attach.

“We also make oyster rings—we soak jute, or hemp, in cement. We build them at UCF and put them on a trailer, then load them on this boat.”

These handmade structures are remarkably effective at recruiting oyster growth. “We were getting 80 new oysters per ring in a year, but once we figured rough textured fibers attracted more oysters, we went from 80 a year to 100. The Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna is currently making oyster ‘volcanoes,’ which are taller and heavier, with a hole in the center to break up wave energy. Those we will place in high-traffic areas, like near boat wakes, along shorelines.”

oyster reef restoration
Added to a bar, the oyster rings also dampen wind waves and boat wakes, which can otherwise harm the colonies. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Linda Walters/CEELAB)

The seagrass die-off in Mosquito Lagoon was well-publicized, but Dr. Walters’ research shows oysters, too, had suffered over the years. “Since 1943, Mosquito Lagoon has lost 62.6 percent of its intertidal oyster coverage,” she wrote in reply to my email. “Total coverage now is 3,244 reefs and about 26 hectares. This is despite huge successes with community-based restoration. Losses are attributable to boat/wind wakes, sea level rise, boring sponge infections, fragmentation, and mangrove encroachment.”

oyster restoration
Rings formed of hemp and cement by students at the University of Central Florida. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Linda Walters/CEELAB)

Since 2007, Walters’ team has restored about 3.75 acres of oyster on 97 reefs and 12 shoreline sites. Oysters in this region, Walters notes, grow quickly, reaching maturity by 6 months and 3 inches within a year. Some of the reefs have more than 1,000 live oysters per square meter. She reported an excellent recruitment season for late 2023, thanks to two “pulses of oyster recruitment, one likely in mid-October and another likely in mid-December.”

oyster reef project
The rings constructed by UCF students provide a holdfast for baby oysters drifting in the current. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Linda Walters/CEELAB)

Within 6 months, biodegradable mats and cement/jute rings placed in the summer of 2023 were bristling with more than 200 oysters per square meter. Reefs monitored since the earliest days of the restoration, 2007, continue to harbor robust recruitment. About one quarter of the reefs, Walters notes, have adjacent shoal grass, and that figure rose to a high of 29 percent in 2023.

All that is happy news for anglers in the region, but Walters thinks bigger, doesn’t dwell on the local. “We are not trying to maximize our short-term acreage, but rather improve oyster restoration for all through research efforts,” she wrote.

Essentially, she’s writing the book on oyster reef restoration, and not only for other communities and governments, but for everyday folks. Children’s books on marine conservation, educational modules for students and more have come out of the UCF Coastal and Estuarine Ecology Lab.

oyster reef restoration
Unfilled mats are part of an experiment testing materials. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Linda Walters/CEELAB)
oyster reef
Mats with oyster shell installed. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Linda Walters/CEELAB)

Walters’ research into the historical footprint of oyster coverage in Mosquito Lagoon has driven the orientation of restoration sites.

Anglers are excited to “research” the oyster reefs, as well, albeit using different tools. Kaan Orer, who lives in Orlando, is a super enthusiastic kayak fisherman. He fishes out of an Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot 120 kayak. He’s a YouTube nut, and if you’re into either of those two subjects—Old Town kayaks or YouTube fishing—there’s a great chance you’re familiar with him.

Greg Harrison, in his pontoon boat, towed our kayaks about 3 miles north from Riverbreeze Park in Oak Hill. And Greg did us quite an honor: He started us at a reef named for his late mother, Donna Sue, an enthusiastic supporter of his volunteer work. Greg said that as far as he knew, Kaan and I would be the first to fish it!

“The bottom is mostly sand, with some mud closer to the mangroves,” Greg said, gesturing to the area marked by signs warning boaters of the reefs. “We have used oyster rings along the original footprint of the reef, to absorb some of the wave action, and also blocked off with shell oyster bags along the shoreline here.”

Fishing restored bars in Mosquito Lagoon, naturally I hoped to find redfish. I knew the prospects for reliable catches had dimmed over the years. But Kaan—who fishes the area more frequently than I do—had related promising observations.

redfish tail
Expect to catch redfish in Mosquito Lagoon, Fla.

“Four years ago, redfish weren’t around much, but now I’m seeing schools everywhere,” he said. “I see different sizes, from 6 inches to over 30—two weeks ago I caught a 31-incher on topwater. But these reds can get lethargic in cold water—last week the water was in the low 60s, and crystal clear where we could sight fish. We ran into 17 or 18 redfish of all sizes, some 30 inches and up, by the mangroves, but they didn’t want to bite anything! The only solution in that situation, is nice, big, juicy live shrimp, freelined. Or, if you don’t mind waiting, cut mullet.”

Today, the water felt pretty warm but the wind and clouds weren’t good for sight fishing.

Kaan took off in his motorized kayak and soon got into a good run of small seatrout on jigs with plastic grub tails.

His motor—a Minn-Kota drive built for Old Town—runs off a 12V, 100Ah lithium-ion battery. He carries a 50Ah battery as a spare.

Kaan primarily fishes artificial lures. He says he starts his typical day early with topwater lures, following up with versatile jigs and plastics.

His tackle for the Lagoon is appropriately on the light side, as long casts are prioritized around notoriously wary fish. “That was a gamechanger for me, when I started learning,” he recollects. “Always go lighter! It makes a huge difference, so you don’t wear yourself out casting. I downsize everything—2500 or 3000 series reels instead of 4000 or 5000. I use 10- or 15-pound-test braid and fluorocarbon leader of 20- or 25-pound-test.”

fishermen in boat
Greg Harrison of CCA Florida, with Kaan Orer, has high hopes.

Some days, in winter and spring, he’ll bring fresh shrimp, fiddler crabs or sandfleas and target black drum and sheepshead at docks along the Intracoastal Waterway. “Five to 12 feet of water and structure; that’s what I’m looking for,” he said, for those two predominantly scent-feeding species.

Today, the oyster bars were the producers.

Fishing along an oyster-rich island shoreline similar to the one where I caught my redfish, I caught a respectable seatrout, maybe 18 inches. For a few seconds I actually thought it was another redfish. Feeling a strong thump amid decidedly un-trout-like habitat (deep hole under a mangrove limb), I remarked to Kaan that it could be a big red. It was neither a big red nor a particularly big trout, but it gave a good account of itself. In heavy winds, on waters I hadn’t fished in a year, I was feeling pretty good.

Back when I first fished Mosquito Lagoon, in the early 1990s, we might’ve driven to Sebastian Inlet to add a snook catch and complete the inshore slam. Not so today. Kaan is bullish about the Mosquito Lagoon snook fishery—they’re essentially an every trip catch, and there’s good evidence of mixed year classes in the area. “I catch 15- to 20-inchers all the time,” Kaan said, “but there are bigger ones hiding under the mangroves.”

fishing in a kayak
It’s become harder to find gator trout here over the years, but juveniles like this one landed by Kaan Orer are plentiful. Greg Harrison of CCA Florida, with Orer, top, has high hopes.

He was right on both scores. Kaan and I found a small, unnamed tidal passage between islands, flanked at both entrances by some of Greg’s oyster bars. The creek was populated by a wide range of snook. I know this because I spent a few minutes congratulating myself on landing a couple of “snooklets,” bright little gems that swatted my jig near the outlet of the tidal passage. Then I snagged a mangrove limb. As I paddled toward shore to retrieve my jig, I looked down and saw full-size, Sebastian Inlet grade snook piled in the bottom of the creek!

Unfortunately, we dialed in the location of those big fish just as the current slackened. We were unable to hook any, but we’ll be back.

Oyster Bar Tactics

saltwater fishing lures
Strike King’s Sexy Dawg topwater plug and Redfish Magic Glass Minnow with jighead.

One of the things about fishing oyster bars is, you don’t really want to be fishing on or too close to the bar, especially at lower tides. Topwater lures are one exception: You can work a high-floating plug over the shells with some impunity. Snook and redfish sometimes rush out of incredibly thin water to crush a lure like a Strike King Sexy Dawg, Berkley HighJacker, Zara Spook, MirrOlure Top Dog, or Yo-Zuri Hydro Pencil.

But jigs, livebait rigs, spoons, even so-called snagless or weedless presentations: They’re gonna hang up.

Working subsurface baits along the margins of an oyster reef, where it meets sand or mud, is an excellent strategy. Channels between bars are especially attractive. In my experience, oyster bars convey a general richness to the nearby waters, and this lends to the gamefish appeal of related structure and habitats. If you had to pick a mangrove shoreline to pole and watch for fish—one shoreline adjacent to an oyster reef, another in relatively barren waters—the one with the oysters nearby is liable to be more productive. That’s of course taking into account other variables like current and depth.

In short, you may or may not find fishing success on the oyster bar—but in the long run, the presence of an oyster bar—especially one with a preponderance of live shell—magnifies the likelihood of hookups, as well as the overall diversity of targets.

The Cleaning Crew

oyster bed under water
One mature Mosquito Lagoon oyster filters 16 to 20 gallons of water per day.

What kind of metric can be used to describe the services provided by oysters?

Dr. Linda Walters at UCF indicates one mature Mosquito Lagoon oyster filters 16 to 20 gallons of water per day while feeding on suspended particles. How does that translate?

On a recent inventory of restoration projects, the St. Johns River Water Management District lists item number 1, Brevard County Living Shoreline. The project (not on Mosquito Lagoon but nearby) comprises six oyster reefs, totaling 2,360 linear feet, anticipated to remove 639 pounds of nitrogen per year, and 48 pounds of phosphorous. The two elements, associated with wastewater and stormwater runoff, have fueled harmful algae blooms and subsequent seagrass mortality.





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