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FL - Oyster Reef Restoration Efforts Get Help from Potato Chip Byproduct

Longtime work to restore oyster reefs in the Indian River Lagoon has found a new, unusual ally: potato chips.

The Coastal and Estuarine Ecology Lab at UCF has been experimenting with various products looking for an effective, biodegradable material for restoration that’s inexpensive. For the past 14 months the group has been testing a mesh made from leftover potato starch collected from chip factories. So far, it’s been a successful method providing habitats for the lagoon’s vital shellfish population. A second material — a cement-infused fiber — also shows promise as an alternative to traditional plastic-based methods to attract oysters, which help improve lagoon water quality.

“The oysters seem to really be taking to the potato chip method,” says biology Professor Linda Walters. “While our plastic mesh was effective and brought over 14 million oysters to Mosquito Lagoon, this is an exciting step forward in using genuinely effective biodegradable materials.”

In the past 100 years, more than 85 percent of shellfish reefs have been lost globally as the result of human harvesting, loss of habitat, diseases and invasive species, according to research published in BioScience. Oyster reefs play a vital role in ecosystems as natural water filters, barriers against erosion and habitats for marine life.

“Harmful algal blooms became frequent after the loss of oysters,” Walters says. “The reefs can stabilize shorelines and provide nutrients to other animals. We need them so that synergy in ecosystem services may be restored.”

The recent innovation builds on years of work by Walters and a team of students and more than 62,000 volunteers to rebuild these lost habitats in Mosquito Lagoon waters near New Smyrna Beach. Walters is also a member of the Sustainability Coastal Systems cluster at UCF. Their search for a more eco-friendly product led them to the Netherlands and a company called BESE Ecosystem Restoration Products. BESE-products, formed around a team of ecologists and habitat experts, developed the innovative mesh from leftover potato starch collected from chip factories. The mesh is manually attached to the shells of oysters using wire, then left alone to be observed in the regeneration process. After 14 months of pilot testing, the potato chip reefs have over 400 live oysters per square meter.

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