Small but mighty, oysters can be a crucial component to a healthy coastal ecology. The mollusks, whose filter feeding cleans water of harmful nutrients, used to be plentiful in Central Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, but now are few in number.

As harmful algae blooms have impacted water quality in the lagoon in recent years, those involved in restoration have turned to oysters to bolster their efforts.

The lagoon is a 156-mile long ecological and recreational treasure along Florida’s East Coast. It is one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America and has an estimated economic value of $3.7 billion per year to the region.

The region’s Brevard Zoo has been working with organizations for years to address water quality problems by introducing new oyster reefs. Oysters filter feed by drawing water in through their gills, collecting plankton and particles they use as food, and dispelling the remaining water as waste.

The zoo creates new reefs by laying a foundation of bagged shells on the lagoon floor, then introducing small dime-sized oysters atop to spur growth. Shells used in the expansive project come from restaurants and shucking houses up and down the Florida coast. After a 3-month long curing process at a local quarantine site, shells are ready to be reintroduced to the aquatic environment.

One of the biggest challenges the zoo faced was the long and laborious process of filling bags with oyster shells by hand. Zoo officials reached out to Harris and asked whether the company could design and build a machine to aid in the process of filling the oyster bags, which are used as the foundation for new reefs. Automating the task would dramatically increase efficiency.

A group of Harris employees volunteered their time and ingenuity to design and build the machine. Together, six team members donated a total of 270 hours under the company’s Harris Employees Actively Responding Together (HEART) volunteering program.

“An opportunity like this is fulfilling on a personal level,” Harris volunteer team leader Ihosvany Garcia said. “Our group has been privileged with a chance to affect a crucial ecological change using our very own technological resources and expertise.”

In addition to Garcia, other team members were Kari Andresen, Scott Cerasale, Chance Eldredge, Julio Perez and Jake Sherlock.

The machine uses a rubber conveyer belt to transfer the shells from a hopper on one side to a bagging chute on the other. It takes four people to operate, two feeding shells onto the belt and the others on the bagging side and controls. Each reef requires about 2,400 bags to cover 1,000 linear feet section of the lagoon.

The machine will help achieve that goal by reducing required man power to 6 volunteers and automating a task that previously required a team of 40 to complete.

“The use of oyster reefs is growing around the country as coastal communities learn more about the positive impacts of living shorelines. So this ingenious machine is not only going to allow us to redouble our efforts to help re-establish oyster beds and restore the lagoon, but could be used nationally” Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten said. “We are grateful to our Harris partners and these employees who volunteered to support a natural resource that is so important to our community.”

Harris has also become a member of a network called the Indian River Lagoon Innovators and Investors, or IRL-12, which works with various groups to support restoration efforts.