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Oyster shells used to create more than two miles of reefs in Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay Watch project not only replenishes the bay's oyster reefs but restores the ecosystem and prevents beach erosion.

PINELLAS COUNTY – The shucked oyster shells left over from tasty dishes at Tampa Bay seafood restaurants are helping to restore the shoreline ecosystem and protect shorelines from coastal erosion throughout Tampa Bay, Florida's largest open-water estuary.

For the past 30 years, the nonprofit organization Tampa Bay Watch has used oyster shells to create more than 2 miles of oyster shell reefs at 30 sites along the shores of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties.

Prior to the 1940s, the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) was abundant in Tampa Bay with estimates as high as 2,000 acres of oyster reefs throughout the estuary. Over-harvesting, disease and environmental impacts, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have resulted in an 85 percent loss of oyster reefs along shorelines, according to Tampa Bay Watch.

An estimated 171 acres of oyster habitat is all that remains of the 2,000 acres along the shorelines in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

To help restore Tampa Bay's lost oyster habitat, Tampa Bay Watch developed the Community Oyster Reef Enhancement (CORE) program in the early 2000s. Through CORE, Tampa Bay Watch has used more than 2,500 tons of oyster shells to restore reefs.