When Suncoast natives Dom and Vince Marino learned about the high rate of manatee death in Florida waters, they decided to take action. Early this year, the brothers began Oyster Boys Conservation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cleaning local waters with a little help from some oysters. Vertical oyster gardens (VOGs), the Marinos discovered, were one of the fastest and most effective ways to have a positive impact on their environment and so their ultimate goal is to have every dock in Sarasota bay equipped with some sort of living dock mechanism like vertical oyster gardens.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

"Vertical oyster gardening is like building affordable housing for those in need," according to co-founder and president, Dom Marino. "Baby oyster larvae float through the water column looking for somewhere to land and call home. Residential seawalls and inshore dredging have reduced the amount of possible housing opportunities for these oyster spats to land and grow. Most of the 1,101 manatees that died in 2021 died of starvation. Seagrass growth is impaired because of harmful nutrient density and sediments in the water column, oftentimes reducing the amount of sunlight able to reach the seagrass causing it to die. Oysters are continually filtering both sediments and runoff nutrients like nitrogen out of the water column. Adult oysters can filter 50 gallons of polluted saltwater each day. VOGs create micro habitats for smaller shrimps, fishes and crustaceans positively impacting the food web.”"

The first project for the Oyster Boys included placing 100 VOGs on their home dock on Blackburn Bay south of Spanish Point. Since Midnight Pass closed in the 80's, that region of the bay does not receive the necessary tidal exchange from the Gulf Waters. This lack of flow means the storm runoff stays within this part of the bay system, limiting the quality of life for marine species. The VOGs house the filter feeders that can combat that nutrient and sediment pollution, making the bay a healthier place. And since the VOGs don’t touch the seafloor, there is no need for a permit. "As long as the owner of the dock gives permission, we are in good shape," says Dom.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

The main goal of Oyster Boys Conservation is to restore the oyster population within Florida waterways. The more oysters put in the water, the healthier the waterways will become. Their means of accomplishing that is through awareness, education and volunteer recruitment. The most valuable volunteers recruited to date, according to Dom, are the assisted living residents at Heritage Oaks of Englewood. They spend their time stringing up the shells for the vertical oyster gardens, bringing them a sense of purpose as they're able to serve their greater community while helping to save the lives of manatees. 

Participants and supporters of the mission are able to gain access to Club Manny, the web3 digital community. "Club Manny can be compared to a digital country club," says Dom. "Only country club members gain access to the club house restaurant and the greens. Only Club Manny Members gain access to our digital community of like-minded individuals who give a dang about protecting Florida.” This digital community serves as home to applicable education and certifications, exclusive raffles, and private events. The organization uses non-fungible tokens (NFT) digital collectibles as membership passes, earning members opportunities to free raffles and invitations to private events and education. NFT collectors have sent $37B to marketplaces in 2022 so far. Utilizing blockchain technology and social currency with NFTs has allowed the group to fundraise and educate at a global scale. 

Photography by Wyatt KostyganThe second piece of the Oyster Boys authentic approach to protecting Florida will be to bring to life their concept of restoration stations. They currently have sights set on two preserved waterfront properties that they plan to practice both regenerative oyster gardening on shorelines as well as sustainable farming techniques like permaculture on land while remaining open to the public for agritourism advancements. “Imagine an old Florida approach to a scientific and educational Disney World,” says Dom. “The Florida Department of Agriculture's ‘Fresh From Florida’ program has been instrumental in guiding and helping us develop this plan to emphasize the importance of responsibly caring for our homeland.”

The Marino brothers were born in East Bradenton. They moved to Siesta Key in grade school, then to Osprey three years later, where they reside today. There are two other co-founders on the team, Kristopher Harris and Skyler Windmiller. Kristopher serves as external strategy consultant for the team. Skyler is the marketing director and secretary for the organization. He resides in Kansas City, KS. Newcomer Matt Demasi in Venice fulfills the group’s treasurer duties as CFO. The group is made up of very determined young men, with young being the key word. Each team member is 27 or 28 years old with the exception of field operations manager, Vince Marino who is only 21.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

According to Dom and Vince, Hurricane Ian has further emphasized the urgency for more oysters in our waterways. It's been suggested by the aquaculture scientific community that much of the flooding that was seen in Fort Myers could have been severely reduced if the natural boundaries still were in place and not developed for urban use. Mangroves and oyster beds have proven to mitigate shoreline erosion through wave attenuation. The contaminants washed into the flood waters from Hurricane Ian not only inflamed flesh-eating bacteria but also sparked a red tide bloom. "The fact of the matter is that oysters naturally filter both of these threats with each breath they take, hour after hour, day after day, and they are happy to do it," says Dom.

"We will constantly be seeking people willing to volunteer their dock for VOG installation as well as drillers ready to drill some oyster shells," says Dom. "Monetary donations are encouraged so that we can prepare this defense system as more and more people move to Florida each day."