Chefs call it "merroir." The newly minted term refers to the flavors imparted by the different areas of the sea. It's the taste identifier which makes the oysters unique to a region's waters. For instance, Long Island's Blue Points are mild, pleasantly salty and very meaty, while Virginia's Chincoteagues are long and skinny, delivering plenty of salinity with a sweet finish.
Connoisseurs and newcomers to the oyster bar both debate salinity and complexity as well as the finish, perhaps with hints of melon, copper, or cucumber. As an added bonus the bivalves pack nutrients like zinc and iron.
Still, the biggest benefit is that oysters are self-sustaining and work as filter feeders-- improving water quality. Once found in abundance along the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), the Eastern oyster has now vanished from many portions of the waterway decimated by chronic pollutants that have resulted in algae super-blooms, massive fish kills and the deaths of a significant number of wildlife.
The humble oyster, living its life basically stuck in the mud, is playing a starring role in restoring the IRL's ecosystem. Ten years ago, UCF partnered with The Nature Conservancy, and later with the Brevard Zoo employing special oyster restoration mats in the knee-deep waters of the lagoon to rebuild oyster reef habitats in suitable areas of the Canaveral National Seashore.
Oyster mats are created by drilling holes in oyster shells, and using plastic ties to tie them to plastic mats that are weighted to the lagoon bottom with sprinkler donuts. The mats, a new habitat for free-swimming larvae, are arranged in a quilt-like pattern to create reefs in a technique developed by UCF's Dr. Linda Walters who helped to found the Oyster Mats project.
Oysters consume bacteria contaminants floating in the lagoon, little by little cleansing the water. One adult oyster can filter 25 to 50 gallons of water a day. Those numbers become staggering over an oyster's often 20-year lifespan. In addition, oysters are a keystone species that support a healthy ecosystem offering a prime nursery habitat for fish, crab, shrimp and other critters.
The Brevard Zoo reports 45,237 oyster mats have been deployed to establish 77 new oyster reefs, thanks to the help of more than 49,071 volunteers as of November 7. In excess of 11,920,000 potential live oysters have been restored due to supplied substrate over the past decade.
Keith Winsten has been a strong advocate of the half-cent-on-the dollar sales tax to help pay for the clean-up of the lagoon.
"Our mission is to answer the call," said Winsten, Executive Director of Brevard Zoo that joined the oyster mat project in 2009. "We're all about community engagement, bringing people together to tackle actively restoring the lagoon and the oyster reefs. The numbers, the reach and the impact have been significant. It's a quality program and we're proud to be part of it. In conservation efforts people hear a lot of negative things, so it's important to tout our successes."
In recent years the Brevard Zoo has played a key role in oyster restoration projects. It partnered with Brevard County's Natural Resource Management Department to launch the Oyster Gardening Project, a community-based project where resident gardeners create special habitats to grow oysters off their docks on the lagoon.
Jody Palmer worked with The Nature Conservancy to bring the oyster mat project to the Brevard Zoo. Today, Palmer is the Brevard Zoo's Director of Conservation,
"Since only a few small pockets of Brevard County had oysters, we knew that it was important to bring them in and what better way than to have the residents grow them off their docks?" Palmer said. "We researched programs in other states that had similar programs and then built our oyster gardening efforts from their lessons learned."
The tiny oysters — about the size of a pinky fingernail — are grown by Florida Oceanographic Society, a nonprofit group in Stuart. As of the end of October 1,032 lagoon residents have signed up to turn their backyard docks into garden plots that will raise baby oysters from newly hatched larvae.
They grow in habitats (metal cages) and when large enough in six to nine months, the oysters are transplanted into special areas of the lagoon for oyster reef restoration projects in Brevard County. Most of the reefs built over the years have survived the algae blooms, reduced water quality, and Hurricane Matthew that the lagoon has encountered.
Over the last few years the zoo has staged 42 successful workshops.
"The oyster restoration program with Brevard Zoo and partners is a wonderful example of why the condition of our lagoon is going to turn around," Palmer said. "Seeing so many citizens engaged and enthusiastic about restoring our estuary provides hope and confidence for a healthy future."