An excavator places rocks in the water for oyster reef construction in Florida's East Bay.
Oyster Reef Construction An excavator sits atop a barge in East Bay, placing rocks in the water to construct new oyster reefs. © Jacobs Engineering

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TNC and Partners Construct Oyster Reefs in Pensacola's East and Blackwater Bays

Project will help restore oysters to the region and supports goals of new oyster fisheries and habitat management plan.

Brand New Reef
Brand New Reef One of ten completed oyster reefs. © Darryl Boudreau/NWFWMD

Ten Reefs Constructed!

A lot of progress has been made since the December update. Ten reefs are now 100% completed using over 27,000 tons of limestone rock and recycled oyster shell, with eleven more reefs currently underway. See the complete update.

Map of Pensacola East Bay Oyster Habitat Restoration
Project Area Location of Pensacola East Bay Oyster Habitat Restoration Project © TNC

TNC and partners announce the start of construction on the Pensacola East Bay Oyster Habitat Restoration Project to boost oyster populations in East and Blackwater Bays. The project is the largest scale estuarine habitat restoration undertaken by TNC in Florida—33 oyster reefs will be placed along approximately 6.5 miles of Santa Rosa County shoreline, to return oysters to a region where they thrived historically but have since declined.

Oyster Restoration Project Updates

Progress on the Pensacola East Bay Oyster Habitat Restoration project will be highlighted as the reefs are constructed—be sure to return to this page for regular updates.

March 2022 Update

Ten reefs are 100% constructed using over 27,000 tons of limestone rock and recycled oyster shell, representing over 35% of total project completion. Fifteen other reefs are under construction. The 25 reefs planned for south of Escribano Point are expected to be completed in the coming months. Construction will then move to the eight reefs planned in Blackwater Bay. Construction is occurring day or night when water levels allow for barge access. Check out the animated video below illustrating reefs colonizing with oysters and attracting seagrass, fish and crabs!

What Do Oyster Reefs Really Do? This animation shows how oysters grow on the newly-constructed reefs, promoting growth of seagrass and attracting fish, crabs, birds and recreational anglers.
Map of Pensacola East Bay Oyster Habitat Restoration. project showing completed reefs to date.
Construction Progress Illustration showing locations of the three completed reefs to date. The map will be updated as reefs are 100% constructed. © Kathleen Freeman/TNC
Oyster reefs stretch out along the East Bay shoreline.
First 10 reefs 100% complete! Oyster reefs of various sizes and shapes stretch out along the East Bay shoreline. © Darryl Boudreau/NWFWMD
Construction Progress Illustration showing locations of the three completed reefs to date. The map will be updated as reefs are 100% constructed. © Kathleen Freeman/TNC
First 10 reefs 100% complete! Oyster reefs of various sizes and shapes stretch out along the East Bay shoreline. © Darryl Boudreau/NWFWMD

December 2021 Update

Three reefs are 100% constructed using over 3,000 tons of limestone rock and recycled oyster shell, representing 9% of total project completion. Several other reefs are under construction. Construction is occurring day or night when water levels allow for barge access. Coming soon - an animated video illustrating reefs colonizing with oysters and attracting seagrass, fish and crabs!

Map of Pensacola East Bay Oyster Habitat Restoration. project showing completed reefs to date.
Construction Progress Illustration showing locations of the three completed reefs to date. The map will be updated as reefs are 100% constructed. © Kathleen Freeman/TNC
Aerial view of three newly constructed oyster reefs in Pensacola Bay.
Stretching to the Horizon Construction continues on the oyster reefs, which can be seen nearly stretching to the horizon along the East Bay shoreline. © Darryl Boudreau/NWFWMD
Construction Progress Illustration showing locations of the three completed reefs to date. The map will be updated as reefs are 100% constructed. © Kathleen Freeman/TNC
Stretching to the Horizon Construction continues on the oyster reefs, which can be seen nearly stretching to the horizon along the East Bay shoreline. © Darryl Boudreau/NWFWMD

August 2021 Update

A project more than ten years in the making reached a key milestone on July 28, 2021, when the first limestone rocks were placed in the water. Oyster reefs provide multiple benefits to both people and nature. The rocks provide the structure needed to rebuild this critical habitat in the Pensacola Bay System.

Rocks in the Water! An excavator sits atop a barge in East Bay placing limestone rocks in the water, marking the start of the oyster reef habitat restoration project.

About the Oyster Restoration Project

The restoration project is funded by a $15 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (NFWF GEBF) through funding from the criminal settlement of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The reefs will help to restore oysters to the bays and in doing so benefit the oyster fishery, wildlife, water quality, and nearshore habitats. The project aligns with the new oyster fisheries and habitat management plan, created to improve the resilience and sustainability of the oysters in the Pensacola Bay ecosystem. Implementation of the oyster management plan will be led by the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program.

“Oysters play a vital and often overlooked role in the health of our estuaries, our fisheries and our economy. Reinvigorating and conserving the oyster population in Pensacola Bay helps restore a vital part of the region’s rich history and puts to good use funds from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that impacted the region so profoundly,” said Temperince Morgan, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “We’re grateful to NFWF, the State of Florida, Santa Rosa County, the community, and the many partners who have worked to make the effort to recover the oyster population here possible. Joint efforts such as this demonstrate the power of collaboration and can be replicated across the Gulf to great conservation and economic benefit.”

The oyster habitat restoration project reflects the long-term and collaborative effort of a diverse team of partners, including the oyster fishing community and a technical working group—a committee formed by TNC to provide feedback and expertise on the project design and monitoring. Participants include Eglin Air Force Base, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Aquaculture Division, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Santa Rosa County, Northwest Florida Water Management District, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“NFWF appreciates the significant work done by The Nature Conservancy and its partners to advance the Pensacola Bay oyster restoration project to the construction phase,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “This project, like so many others in the State of Florida, is a testament to the outstanding partnerships among state and federal resource agencies, conservation organizations and local governments. These strong partnerships are the key to advancing conservation and restoration projects at a scale that will have meaningful benefits for Florida’s fish, wildlife and habitats impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

"Oysters are unique in the marine world in that they are a species that forms a habitat that other species rely on—and they are a fishery,” said Anne Birch, marine program manager for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “Oysters and the reef habitat they form are vital for the health and well-being of our environment, economies, and communities throughout the Gulf of Mexico. As one of the indicators of the health of our estuaries, a decline in oysters is a signal to us to figure out why and intervene with actions to reverse the trend. Restoration of the habitat and addressing the root causes for their decline are critical steps toward their sustainable future.”

“We are fortunate to work with The Nature Conservancy on this project,” said Chris Verlinde, UF/IFAS Sea Grant Extension Santa Rosa County. “Like oyster populations throughout the world, our local oyster populations have declined. This project will increase oyster and marine habitat in our local system and provide benefits for the local community both environmentally and economically.”

TNC lends science and conservation management expertise to the project, complemented by the efforts of coastal professionals including coastal engineering firm Jacobs, managing the design, permitting and construction; coastal construction firm CrowderGulf, installing the reefs; and professional services firm WSP, conducting science-based monitoring for the project.

The reef structures have been designed to maximize oyster settlement and success under specific local conditions, enabled by the collection and review of data reflecting over two years of pre-construction monitoring and an intensive design and engineering process. The reefs will be constructed of limestone rock of select sizes and oyster shell. They will be placed between 200-500 feet off the east shores of East and Blackwater Bays in about four feet of water and may be visible at low tides during certain times of the year.

Once completed, the reefs will offer a place for oysters to settle, grow and contribute to the ecosystem by filtering water and providing an important habitat for commercially and recreationally valuable finfish, crabs, shrimp, and birds. These reefs may also serve as a source of oyster larvae for the adjacent harvestable reefs restored by the state.

Monitoring for the project, conducted by WSP, began two years prior to construction of the oyster reefs to provide a baseline of conditions to evaluate the post-construction benefits and/or impacts of the project. Monitoring will continue for up to five years after the reefs are constructed to measure the project’s progress toward the goals of oyster recruitment to the new reefs and an increase in abundance of fish and crabs and water birds.

The following metrics are measured quarterly or annually and align with the standards developed by TNC and partners detailed in the Oyster Habitat Restoration Monitoring and Assessment Handbook (Baggett et al, 2014):

  • Density of live oysters
  • Oyster size frequency
  • Density and size of Invertebrates
  • Density of crustaceans and juvenile fish
  • Density of blue crabs
  • Water bird sightings
  • Density and percent cover of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation
  • Physical measurements: water temperature, depth, salinity, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and wave energy
Rendering of completed oyster reefs
Oyster Reef Rendering Rendering of the completed oyster reefs at low tide. © Jacobs

“This project will enhance the diversity of estuarine habitat adjacent to the FWC Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area, and enhance the living conditions for countless fish and wildlife species that use oyster reef systems,” said Kent Smith, Biological Administrator for the FWC’s Habitat Conservation and Restoration Section. “Collaboration between these partners has led to a large scale enhancement effort that will benefit these species and provide opportunities for the people that use and visit this system as well. The resulting oyster reef network will provide natural resilience to the effects of sea level rise, create fishing opportunities, stabilize sediments and improve water quality through the filtration provided by oysters growing on the structures. The FWC is pleased to be a partner with The Nature Conservancy on this regionally significant aquatic habitat project.”

Oyster reefs are considered one of the planet’s most imperiled marine habitats. Over the last two centuries more than 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs have been lost, and this statistic is echoed in most of Florida’s bays and estuaries. Oyster reefs face a variety of threats including overharvesting, disease, pollution, and damage from boat traffic. TNC is working to restore these critical ecosystems in Florida and around the globe.  

History and Benefits of Oyster Reefs Learn more about the benefits of oysters in this video.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.