Gulf Power volunteers apply teamwork and muscle power on oyster reef mat project

With menacing storm clouds brewing on the horizon on a recent August morning, about 25 Gulf Power employees and family members showed up on the shore at Laird Park on West Bay in Panama City to volunteer for a coastal habitat restoration project.

Spearheaded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the project involved some back-breaking work: shoveling recycled oyster shells into buckets, spreading them over biodegradable coconut-fiber netting, sewing the netting to seal the shells into a mat, rolling up the heavy mats and piling them into a holding area.

“These dead oyster shells were collected at restaurants and when they’re deployed into the bay, juvenile oysters will attach to them,” said Jeff Cole, Environmental Affairs specialist III, who heads up Gulf Power’s Stewardship program.

He recruited the employees, most of them from the Eastern District’s Panama City office, Plant Smith and Environmental Affairs, who made the work look like child’s play. In less than two hours they had completed nearly all of the 17 mats slated to be constructed that day before the thunderstorm rolled in halting the work.

“It goes quickly when you have a group like this,” said Katie Konchar, the FWC biologist leading the restoration effort. “Some of these volunteers fish in West Bay and have seen the issues going on there.”

Gulf Power employees are among dozens of groups and hundreds of individuals helping FWC with the multi-year project aimed at enhancing and protecting the oyster population of St. Andrews Bay, protecting shorelines, and improving water quality, fisheries and conditions of seagrass beds.

Raymond Smith, mechanic-Plant Smith, put a lot of muscle power into the project – shoveling and hauling buckets of shells – for several reasons, one being to help boost the oyster harvest.

“I love Apalachicola oysters,” he said. “Gulf Power is really good about getting involved with community service and environmental projects. We have a boss man who allows us to take part.”

Kevin Dutton, Sr. Substation specialist-Panama City, who brought his son, Colby along, likened the project to farming, saying he hopes the group’s work will produce “future crops of oysters” that he loves to eat.

Two of Gulf Power Western District’s Environmental Affairs summer interns, Trista Miller and Cherilyn Ramsey, showed up and climbed the oyster shell pile to shovel the shucks into buckets.

“We’re both biology majors, and when we heard about this we were really excited,” said Miller. “The environment is close to our hearts.”

Scott Wilkes, son of Sr. Environmental Specialist Robert Wilkes, also lent a hand for the love of the outdoors.

“I enjoy the bay on the weekend, and I want to come out and give back,” he said, while showing company loyalty by sporting a “Walk United” 2016 campaign T-shirt.

 The next step will be deploying the mats sometime next month.

“We have a barge sitting in the Intracoastal Waterway and we’ll load it up here,” Konchar said about the Laird Park staging area. “We’ll be looking for volunteers when we install them in West Bay.”

Cole said he will be sending out another call for volunteers to help with the deployment.

“This really means a lot to me to get out into the community under the Gulf Power umbrella and show that we are not just out here producing electricity. We’re getting out and making a difference by improving our bays and doing longleaf restoration.”

To participate in future Stewardship projects, contact

Gulf Power is an investor-owned electric utility with all of its common stock owned by Atlanta-based Southern Company. Gulf Power serves more than 447,000 customers in eight counties throughout Northwest Florida. The company’s mission is to safely provide exceptional customer value by delivering reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible electricity while strengthening our communities. Visit online at or on the company’s Facebook page. News information can be found at