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Recycled Reefs

Movement to reclaim oyster shells creates new habitat for sea life.          

By Tom Harvey



Consider the lowly oyster. It doesn’t have flashy moves; it just sits there on the bay bottom. It has no pretty colors or interesting fins; instead it looks like a lumpy rock. Yet scientists have discovered that this ugly duckling holds important benefits for coastal ecosystems.

Many people know oysters are tasty, but few realize their vital ecological role. Oyster reefs provide habitat for bottom-dwelling fish and invertebrates, attracting larger game fish. Reefs also stabilize the bay bottom and break wave energy, preventing shoreline erosion. Oysters act as natural filters to remove silt and contaminants. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and large, healthy oyster populations filter huge volumes of seawater, improving water quality and clarity.

That’s why more efforts are springing up along the Texas coast to save the oyster, including programs to reroute shells from landfills back into bays.

Oyster boosters have their work cut out for them as a “triple whammy” has whacked these filter-feeders in recent years. Hurricane Ike destroyed nearly 60 percent of Galveston Bay reef habitat. The multiyear drought in Texas made oysters prone to predators and disease. The BP oil spill effectively shut down oystering in much of Louisiana and Mississippi, shifting harvest pressure to Texas.

The upshot: Some Texas bays have been closed by midseason for the first time in recent years because there are fewer legal-sized oysters.

oysters

To address overharvesting, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is working with the oyster industry to tighten regulations. During the last nine years, many steps have been taken to further protect oyster resources, such as decreasing the commercial harvest limit from 150 to 50 sacks per day, reducing local fishing times, establishing a shell recovery program and capping the number of licenses available.

Now there’s a complementary approach that’s gaining steam — restoring oyster reefs.

Sink Your Shucks, an oyster shell recycling program, was started in 2009 by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.

“We talk about shucked oyster shells in the landfill being a resource out of place,” says Jennifer Pollack, who helped create Sink Your Shucks. “Instead of being disposed of in the landfill, oyster shells can be easily recycled back into bay waters where they are most needed to create new reef habitat.”

Every week, college students haul shucked oyster shells in specially designed bins from restaurants like Water Street Seafood and wholesale markets like Groomer’s Seafood. The shells are stockpiled at the Port of Corpus Christi to dry in the sun for six months before they go back into Texas bays.

Led by program co-coordinator Gail Sutton of the Harte Institute, Sink Your Shucks has reclaimed more than 638,000 pounds of shells to create more than 14 acres of reef in Copano Bay and Aransas Bay. Scientists estimate this new reef area can produce an additional 325,000 pounds of fish, crabs and shrimp per year, worth nearly $250,000 each year.

A similar program is in place in Galveston, with restaurants and volunteers joining forces to recycle oyster shells for Galveston Bay.

The educational awareness generated is perhaps as important as the conservation achieved.

“We build reefs through community-based events, and although those reefs are smaller in terms of acreage, they have the biggest bang for the buck in teaching people about the bay that’s in their backyard,” Pollack says. “We’ve had more than 1,000 volunteers come out and learn about natural resources. I can tell you that each of those people is a better environmental steward as a result.”

For information on how to help, see oysterrecycling.org and galvbay.org/how-we-protect-the-bay/oyster-conservation.

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