Energy & Environment

How Two New Projects Aim To Boost Texas’ Declining Oyster Population (And Why It Matters)

An estimated 50-85% of the Gulf of Mexico’s original oyster reefs have disappeared.

Oysters contribute an estimated $40 million to the Texas economy annually.

To help combat the steep decline of Texas’ oyster population, the Nature Conservancy will carry out two oyster reef restoration projects in 2019, using a new approach that aims to benefit both the marine ecosystem and commercial industry.  

A 50-acre oyster reef will be built in Galveston Bay, using a $2.5 million grant from the BP oil spill restoration fund. While a 60-acre, roughly $5 million reef, will be built in Copano Bay, near Rockport, using different settlement money.

“Right now we’re at a critical point where there is a significant amount of funding that is available — billions of dollars will be spent on Gulf restoration over the next 15 years through the BP oil spill mitigation funds,” said Lily Verdone, the Director of Freshwater and Marine at the Nature Conservancy’s Texas Chapter. “So there’s tremendous opportunity to reverse oysters’ decline in the Gulf of Mexico.”

An estimated 50-85% of the Gulf of Mexico’s original oyster reefs have disappeared, according to a recent report by the Nature Conservancy. In addition to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, other factors like over-fishing and hurricanes have also contributed to the population decline.

“Although historically there were reefs and a lot more diversity in the marine life in these areas of the Gulf, right now we’re going out there and pulling up samples and not finding oysters, just mainly a lot of mud,” Verdone said.

The two reefs will use a new approach: half of each will be a protected marine area, while the other half will be designated for commercial harvesting.

“The idea is that each site pairs both the habitat and the commercial harvestable reefs together to help restore the Gulf ecosystem, while helping revive Texas’ commercial oyster fishery,” Verdone said. “This methodology is not just great for Texas, but it can be used and replicated throughout the Gulf.”                                              

‘Unsung Heroes’: Why Protecting Oysters Matters

Though bivalves might not seem like the most exciting sea creature, they have significant impacts on the marine ecosystem and beyond.

“We like to think of oysters as the unsung heroes of our ocean,” Verdone said. “They support habitat for diversity of marine life, reduce shoreline erosion, buffer storm waves and sea level rise, and really without oysters our coastal ecosystems break down.”

Oysters also improve water quality — one adult oyster can filter around 50 gallons of water a day.

And from a commercial perspective, oysters contribute around $40 million to the Texas economy annually.

What’s Next?

The reefs will be built using limestone boulders to mimic what the historic reefs were like in the area. “The idea is to create some structure in the water where oysters will be able to attach onto and then the reef will develop,” Verdone said.

The portions designated for commercial harvesting will use smaller pieces of limestone to make harvesting easier.

The oyster reef in Copano Bay is already in the pre-construction phase with full construction slated for the winter. The project will then take about six to eight weeks to complete.

Construction for the Galveston reef will begin in mid-2019, and be carried out in conjunction with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Galveston Bay Foundation.

After construction is complete, the reefs will be closed for two years until there are harvestable sized oysters, according to Verdone.

“At the same time it’s open, we’ll have the protected reef that will then allow for more oysters to spread out through the Gulf and create more habitat,” she said.

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