The eastern oyster, a popular bivalve mollusk, is not just a tasty treat; it's also crucial to our bay's health and wellness.

The eastern oyster, a popular bivalve mollusk, is not just a tasty treat; it's also crucial to our bay's health and wellness.

Oysters spend part of their life cycle as plankton, so they float through the water and cannot swim, or swim weakly. They provide food for many animals and form the food chain's basis. If they survive the planktonic stage, they complete their life cycles and attach to hard substrate areas, such as old reefs.

Oysters daily can filter up to 50 gallons of water, and they help to control algal blooms, lower the amount of suspended sediment, silt and nutrients, and improve water quality and clarity.

These species also create three-dimensional structures, referred to as reefs, from older oyster shells. Oyster reefs provide natural habitats to fish, crustaceans, marine worms and other animals. In addition, reefs protect coastal shorelines by breaking waves and lessening erosion's impact.

Worldwide, including in Choctawhatchee Bay, oysters and their habitats have declined in population.

According to information provided by Dorothy Zimmerman from the 2012-2013 Florida Sea Grant Program Highlights, "Apalachicola Bay, a lagoon situated along Florida’s northwest Gulf of Mexico coast, receives freshwater inputs from rivers flowing across ... Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The freshwater inputs create the brackish water habitat essential for oysters to thrive, but in 2011 and 2012, prolonged drought turned the river basin into the driest place in the U.S."

The bay produces about 10 percent of the U.S. oyster supply, and its steep decline makes people wonder whether the industry is on the verge of collapse.

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Florida Sea Grant brought together multiple stakeholders to form the UF Oyster Recovery Team. The group researches the population collapse and explores strategies for increasing the oyster industry's resilience.

The program further states, "Concerns about the oyster harvest began in (the summer of) 2012, when sampling of Apalachicola Bay’s primary producing reefs — the same reefs that produced $6.6 million in dockside landings in 2011 — showed few oysters."

The fishery's collapse comes from the death of young oysters, probably due to disease, predators and the stress of two years' high salinity, the team's research suggests.

Resolving drought and water issues will be key to recovery, and may take 10 years, but it could be reduced to four years with major reef restoration and extreme harvest reduction.

The Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team, a citizens action group, will help facilitate cooperation for a lasting increase in oyster populations.

Locally, there are many volunteer project opportunities to build oyster reefs and learn more about oysters in general. Call the Okaloosa County Extension Office, 689-5850, to learn more about them.

Consult advisories and health information before consuming oysters.

Brooke Saari is a Sea Grant Marine Science and Natural Resources agent at the Okaloosa County Extension office in Crestview.