A group of conservation biologists and a non-profit agency that advocates for individuals with special needs are partnering to help keep local waterways healthy.

UCF Biologist Linda Walters, whose research and volunteer efforts help restore eroding shoreline and oyster habitats along the Mosquito Lagoon, is teaming up with The Arc of Indian River County to continue the work. Arc provides services, education and advocacy to Indian River residents with special needs and their families. The organization has served more than 200 individuals and families since 1975.

Arc participants are making oyster restoration mats that Walters developed about 15 years ago for UCF’s ongoing efforts in the lagoon. The mats, which consists of oyster shells fastened to mesh bases, encourage oyster larvae to establish colonies wherever they are laid. Oysters are native to the lagoon and help keep it clean by filtering 50 gallons of water each day per oyster. About 80 oysters can live on each mat, so that’s more than 4,000 gallons of water filtered each day.

“This is a wonderful development,” Walters said. “This new effort will add to the diversity of people who have made it all possible. The lagoon belongs to all of us and we can all play a part in keeping it vibrant and healthy.”

Restoration is an important piece of a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant that Walters, Geoff Cook (Biology), Kelly Kibler (Engineering), Lisa Chambers (Biology), Tim Hawthorne (Sociology), Fernando Rivera (Sociology) and Melinda Donnelly (Biology) received a year ago. Walters has since been collaborating with the Coastal Conservation Association, New Smyrna Beach Marine Discovery Center and the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program on restoration efforts.

To date, the partnership has recruited more than 49,244 volunteers from children to senior citizens to help make and install oyster restoration mats in the lagoon.

Arc clients get paid a small amount of money to make the mats, which have been deployed in the Indian River Lagoon and spoiler islands near Vero Beach. Toby Jarman, chairperson of the Save the Lagoon Committee of the Vero Beach Power Squadron, originally had the idea to get Arc involved in making the mats and volunteered many hours to see it through.

“These partnerships have allowed individuals with special needs to earn a small paycheck for each mat they produce and to do something good for the environment,” said Charles Riley, executive director at The Arc. “This creates a feeling of self worth for the individuals and shows the public that individuals with special needs can contribute to the community.

Several groups in Indian River County have been working on reef restoration projects for years and the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida is a major contributor, having placed more than 3,353 mats in the county’s waterways. Arc clients made all the mats, said Frank Gidus, director of habitat and environmental restoration with the CCA. Arc clients will be making mats to help Brevard and Volusia counties, as well.

“Our Treasure Coast Chapter volunteers and CCA staff have deployed many of the Arc mats into the local waters to create oyster reefs, as well as donated money,” Gidus said. “This ongoing partnership means our conservation efforts can extend well beyond Indian River County.”