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Restaurant's oyster program helps diners become environmental stewards

Chiles Hospitality recently partnered with Gulf Shellfish Institute to bring vertical oyster gardens to Mar Vista and send some home with diners.

A row of vertical oyster gardens that were recently installed at Mar Vista.
A row of vertical oyster gardens that were recently installed at Mar Vista.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer
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Want to see a vertical oyster garden in action and take one home? Mar Vista is the spot. 

Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub is now the first commercial partner of Gulf Shellfish Institute (GSI). On April 8, the institute installed 50 vertical oyster gardens underneath Mar Vista’s docks and kicked off the VOG distribution box program. 

Vertical oyster gardens, or VOGs, are strands of recycled oyster shells that are drilled through, strung together and tied onto the bottom of a dock to hang in the water. The idea is that the old oysters will promote the growth of new oyster larvae, and add to the overall ecosystem by providing habitat for other marine life. 

Executive Director of GSI Stephen Hesterberg said it’s like landscaping but for a coastal environment.

Mallory Sea passes a vertical oyster garden down to Sarah Hutchins to install on the dock.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

“Vertical oyster gardens are a great way to add some life to otherwise pretty artificial and hard structures,” Hesterberg said. 

Oysters also filter water and can help contribute to better water quality. Some estimates state that a single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day

Whether coming by land or by sea, Mar Vista guests can now see the VOGs under the docks, partially exposed at low tide. It’s the visibility that Hesterberg said is good for spreading awareness. 

“Although hanging 48-50 VOGs off this dock isn’t going to solve all of Florida’s water quality problems, what it does do is it gets people thinking about, ‘Oh, what are some ways in which I can make a little bit of a positive difference?'” Hesterberg said.

Each of the VOGs also has a specific band of colored beads that identifies it. Researchers with GSI can come back to the site to collect data and check up on the VOGs. 

With the restaurant’s new VOG distribution box as well, guests could take home more than just leftovers. 

The distribution box is similar to an existing one at Robinson Preserve. On the box, there’s a QR code to scan to register a VOG and “adopt” it. Then guests can take the VOGs home and install them on their docks.

Mar Vista recently started a program where guests can take home their own vertical oyster gardens.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

For people who don’t have water access, GSI encourages people to hang a VOG on a front porch or patio to raise awareness as an “Estuary Educator.”

These opportunities are available through GSI’s VOG Citizen Science Program, and the VOG project is largely funded by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. 

‘Mar Vista Magic’

So why was Mar Vista chosen as the VOG promotion spot? 

A lot of it has to do with Chiles Hospitality, which owns Mar Vista, Beach House, Sandbar, Gamble Creek Farms and Anna Maria Bake House.

“Most corporations have some cause they’re committed to,” Chiles CEO Chuck Wolfe said. “Ours comes naturally, pun intended, to our owner.” 

Ed Chiles, the owner, has a “deep commitment” to environmental stewardship, according to Wolfe. Other initiatives within the group include implementing recyclable or compostable products where possible, a compost program with Gamble Creek Farms and an existing mini reef project at Mar Vista. 

The restaurants under the Chiles umbrella also collect used oyster shells from guests' finished platters, which could one day be turned into a VOG. 

The vertical oyster gardens from Gulf Shellfish Institute have bands of colored beads that identify each unit for research purposes.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

Another part of the “why” is the location, with Mar Vista located right on the water with a natural shoreline. Wolfe said the group feels lucky to have the locations it does, and wants to continue the group’s trend of environmental stewardship. 

The hands-on VOG program adds to what Wolfe calls the “Mar Vista magic” — a great dining experience that appeals to all the senses, from tasting the food and enjoying the waterside sights to now being able to take home a VOG. 

“There are a handful of places in the entire state that can give you something like this,” Wolfe said. “We think (VOGs) add to the overall experience.” 



Carter Weinhofer

Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.

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