6th CES environmental leads effort to protect MacDill shoreline

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ryan C. Grossklag
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Since 2003, MacDill Air Force Base has partnered with wildlife organizations for the Oyster Reef Stabilization Project, a recurring effort aimed to advance MacDill’s ecosystem while restoring over seven miles of shoreline.

The process calls on Team MacDill as well as Tampa Bay community members to volunteer in the construction of reefs along the shores.

“The project began as a means to control erosion along the southwest corner of the base,” said Andrew Lykens, a Natural & Cultural Resources Manager with the 6th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Flight. “The shoreline was eroding rapidly and they looked for a solution beyond simply erosion control – the oyster reefs do just that by creating habitats as a living shoreline.”

The waters of Tampa Bay were once abundant with native Eastern Oyster with estimates as high as 2,000 acres nearly a century ago, a number currently down to approximately 171. Oyster reefs are constructed to provide natural shoreline barriers, protecting against erosion during large storms and wakes produced by boat traffic.

“Oyster reefs are ecosystem engineers, and the benefits go far beyond times when the waters are turbulent,” explained Lykens. “Oysters are a food source as fish, crabs and birds all feed on them while smaller shrimp, crabs and fish use the reefs as habitats – ultimately drawing in larger predators.”

One oyster can filter one to five gallons of water per hour, acting as a natural cleanser for the bay as they feed on algae and phytoplankton. As a result, the bay water is clearer and more conducive for ecosystem growth.

“The more oysters in Tampa Bay, the better,” said Brendan Myers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service liaison. “Water quality relies on biological filtration, which the oyster reef provides. More animals see the benefits from the food source and habitats, including state and federally listed endangered species such as the red knot, black skimmer and American oystercatcher.”

For Lykens, Myers and the whole 6th CES environmental flight, the project doesn’t end once the reefs are set. Ensuring that the reefs are functioning is a process rather than an action.

“Each reef built was initially monitored for two-to-three years,” said Lykens. “If no one collects data over a long period of time, we won’t truly know how the reefs are performing.”

Due to MacDill’s geographical standing as a peninsula, sandwiched in-between Old Tampa Bay to the West and Hillsborough Bay to the East, wakes produced by boat traffic and natural tides heavily batter the shoreline. Given that one of the functions of the oyster reefs is to act as a living shoreline, it leads one to wonder what impact personnel would see without them.

“If MacDill had not invested in this project, we would have seen continued erosion and at a minimum, continued degradation of coastal and upland habitats,” said Lykens. “Before, we had lost a great deal of coastal marsh and mangroves, now those are returning and thriving in many areas.”

As the project continues, the findings of the environmental flight show growth and development in the ecosystem in and around MacDill. Once depleted vegetation has been revived and wildlife populations have flourished, thanks to the oyster reef habitats. The research gathered has reach extending outside the barriers of MacDill.

“We see great habitat usage around MacDill by a number of gamefish and coastal bird species,” said Myers. “The information and data gathered from this project can be used for future living shoreline projects in Tampa Bay and the greater Gulf Coast region.”

The construction events bring in volunteers from both on-and-off MacDill to position the oyster reefs effectively around the shore. These on-going events will continue as the project proves to be a great benefit to the ecological footprint of MacDill.

“There has been over 7,500 linear feet of reefs built so far, so much so that it is visible on Google Earth,” said Lykens. “We’ve completed five phases of effort so far and the sixth phase is projected to start in the summer of 2021.”

As the 6th CES environmental flight and partner organizations continue to establish and monitor the Oyster Reef Stabilization Project, the lifespan of MacDill’s shoreline and wildlife ecosystem will thrive and extend for years to come.