The Oysters Solution

Want to Clean Up Our Waters? Bottom Feeders May Be the Answer 

On a recent Wednesday morning, Alberto “Tico” Aran glided west on the Coral Gables Waterway in a bright blue kayak, zigzagging from side to side and looking closely at sea walls, dock pilings, marine lines, and mangrove roots. Many were encrusted with sharp-edged shells. And he liked what he saw. 

“What this tells me is that when the right materials are present, oysters are growing,” Aran said. “And when healthy clusters of oysters take hold, that provides benefits for the waterway.” 

Over the past year, the 35-year-old Gables native has spent countless hours touting the power of the humble oyster as a key to restoring the health of the waterway and Biscayne Bay. Oysters build reefs, stabilize the shoreline and, most importantly, boost water quality as filters. 

Aran adopted his mollusk mission – to create a habitat for native eastern, flat tree and mangrove oysters – after a massive August 2020 fish kill in the bay that was blamed on pollution, low oxygen levels, and algae blooms. “I realized I couldn’t explain how this happened in my own back- yard, and I needed to understand it,” says Aran, who grew up on the water in The Gables, went camping as a Boy Scout, and spent many hours snorkeling, spear fishing, and boating. “When the fish kill happened, I looked around and was surprised to see how little attention was given to generating solutions.” 

Aran, who has a master’s degree in public health, earns a living in partnership with his wife Susan making kombucha under the brand name Radiate Kombucha. But he threw himself into learning all he could about ways to address the environmental damage being done. He founded the Watershed Action Lab, garnered $25,000 in donations, and drew up plans to improve water quality with oyster beds – a project that won the endorsement of Mayor Vince Lago and the city commission. 

The Oysters Solution
The Oysters Solution
Alberto “Tico” Aran attaching oyster shells to docks to provide habitats that oysters will colonize.

Ana Zangroniz, a Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent in Miami-Dade County and a specialist in marine ecosystems, lauds Aran for calling attention to the benefits of restoring oyster reef habitats in southeast Florida, which according to a 2012 study has decreased by 99 percent from historic levels. Studies have shown that in ideal conditions, an eastern oyster – the kind commonly served in restaurants – can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. “Each mollusk is eating, sucking in water, filtering out different pathogens,” says Zangroniz. 

This year Aran has plans to launch an oyster shell recycling program modeled on a pilot project by Miami-Dade at the 2018 Deering Estate Seafood Festival. Oyster shells collected from local restaurants can be cured in the sun, then strung like necklaces and attached to docks to provide habitats that live oysters will colonize. The hope is that Gables waterfront residents will hang the strings on their docks. “You don’t need to be a scientist or politician to direct change in your own backyard,” says Aran. 

Yet Zangroniz cautions that while restoring healthy oyster beds may be a part of the solution, the environmental battle will be lost without measures to limit pesticides and fertilizer washing into waterways, and the pollution caused by failing septic tanks. “What Tico is doing is positive, and a big benefit for public education,” says Zangroniz. “But I want to manage expectations. The big thing here is that we’re fighting a long-term battle.”