STUART, FL -- State biologists say if you want to measure the health of an estuary like the St. Lucie, just look for the oysters.
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), conduct monthly monitoring of oyster populations in the St. Lucie Estuary.
"Oysters are one of our key indicators that we use to assess the health of an estuary," says Patti Sime, a biologist for SFWMD.
Sime says oysters can thrive only when the balance of salt and fresh water is just right - a balance that has been thrown wildly off track in recent years.
One active storm season after another have led to massive releases of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary. Those releases led to widespread algae blooms and were linked to outbreaks of sick fish.
But Sime says the recent drought has given the estuary a much need break from the lake releases and from polluted run-off.
"The drought has been a bad thing for a lot of different reasons, but in the St. Lucie Estuary, it's actually a good thing," says Sime.
She says oyster populations have expanded from "basically zero" in 2005. Now, biologists are finding 250 oysters per square meter of river water.
"We have seen an extremely large recovery here," says Melanie Parker, a biologist with FWC.
Biologists expect the oyster recovery will continue so long as the hurricane season doesn't bring a major storm, which could trigger more releases of water from Lake Okeechobee.
They say the growing oyster population helps filter impurities out of the river. It also provides a habitat for crabs, conch and fish.
Copyright 2008 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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