Jim Oppenborn

Jim Oppenborn, the coastal resources coordinator for St. Lucie County, surveys the storage area at Harbor Pointe Park for donated materials to be used in the construction of offshore reefs and oyster reefs in the Indian River Lagoon. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO


Growing up in the laidback Miami of 50 years ago, with daily access to Biscayne Bay, Jim Oppenborn lived the life of a fisherman and sailor during his youth. It was a Huck Finn sort of childhood as he went all over in his little skiff, fishing, diving, swimming and camping out at night on the spoil islands.

It seems that Oppenborn’s life has always revolved around water, competing on the University of Miami swim team while earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and playing water polo in Junior Olympics competitions.

So it seems apropos that his job as coastal resources coordinator for St. Lucie County finds him out on and in the water as he works to improve and maintain recreational areas in the Indian River Lagoon and the county’s offshore waters.

Shortly after he accepted his position, Oppenborn began studying the lagoon’s condition and talking with local scientists, including Leroy Creswell, a marine agent with University of Florida Extension Services. Creswell, who had spawned oysters at Harbor Branch, was interested in bringing back the oyster beds that once flourished in the lagoon. Together, they started looking for places where oysters might be in the lagoon, trying to make their study as methodological as possible.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Oppenborn says, “or make the same mistakes other scientists had made. The first thing we did was put spat (a form of oyster larvae) collectors in 11 points around the lagoon. We wanted to see where the spat was located. We found spat everywhere we put collectors. We have permitted four of those 11 sites. We are now working to seek permits on the fifth of those sites.”

This is where the real work comes in. Since there are no county workers available for the project, Oppenborn appeals to community groups through social media and the group’s Facebook page, Oyster Bagging of Ft. Pierce, to get volunteers to help bag oyster shells provided by seafood restaurants along the coast. Woven plastic bags are filled with the used shells, which lay in huge piles on a piece of county property at Harbor Pointe Park.

It is hot work, but the camaraderie shared by the volunteers makes it seem less like work and more like fun. The volunteers deploy the bags at sites that have permits. Oppenborn inspects the sites and says they are getting results: Oysters are latching onto the bags and there is the presence of invertebrates like shrimp and crabs, young fish and tunicates (a sponge-like marine life), along with mussels.

“One of the interesting things we are seeing,” Oppenborn says, “is sea grasses colonizing in the area near the oyster reefs. Sea grasses are essential as a sea habitat. They, along with the oysters, improve water quality in the lagoon.

“We (Oppenborn and a few scientists) have deployed sub-tidal oyster reefs in the lagoon near the Fort Pierce Inlet. We have seen juvenile lobsters, juvenile stone crabs and juvenile fishes, such as snapper, grouper, black sea bass and snook. We are hoping this will turn into a juvenile fish nursery area.”

In the planning stages is the start of a juvenile fish habitat artificial reef in the lagoon south of South Bridge. The county hasn’t sought permits yet for this project, but has actively pursued changing outdated regulations.

Aside from permitting and coordinating activities, volunteers can do most of the work. Safety of volunteers is the primary concern so when conditions are too hazardous, the county works with McCulley Marine Services Inc., which transports modules to the new reefs, and SeaRover Services Inc., which deploys the modules.

Both companies have worked with the county to transport, deploy, and monitor salvaged construction materials to form artificial reefs. Oppenborn does the planning and permitting for the new artificial reefs, which are popular with local divers and fishermen. He has worked for the county for 12 years and says the county used to construct four smaller artificial reefs per year, but now is doing two to three larger reefs per year. He dives on the sites to see how things are working.

“We have a lot of lionfish on the reefs,” he says, “but there are also a lot of various types of young fish and lobster living on those reefs now.”

County Commission Chairman Chris Dzadovsky has put in hours with the volunteers bagging or deploying oyster shells. He has helped immensely with the marine recreation work in the county, according to Oppenborn, who adds that newly elected Commissioner Linda Bartz and County Administrator Howard Tipton are interested in the marine recreation program. Oppenborn says government support and understanding of the need for this work is crucial to the program’s success.

Oppenborn’s reef programs have had a very real impact on the economy. Oyster reefs clean the waters of the Indian River Lagoon so that juvenile fish and other marine life can thrive and populate the offshore reefs. Both the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean provide recreational destinations for watermen who help boost the local economy.

Water quality also continues to be one of Oppenborn’s major concerns. He is working on a baffle box/living shoreline project waterward of the Old Fort Park that he hopes will expand to other properties along Indian River Drive.

“We (Florida residents) have severe problems with Lake Okeechobee discharges,” Oppenborn says, “but that isn’t the only problem that affects water quality. We have Lake Okeechobee and stormwater runoff, agricultural and urban pollutants, septic tanks and other problems.

“We are all responsible for taking care of our water quality.”


Age: 55
Lives in: Fort Pierce
Occupation: Coastal resources coordinator, St. Lucie County
Family: Wife, Heather; son, Christopher
Education: University of Miami, Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry; University of Florida, master’s degree in fisheries and aquaculture
Hobbies: Water sports
What inspires me: Protecting the environment
Something People Don’t Know About Me: “I went to UC Berkeley and Harvard.”