Oysters: The Unsung Heroes of the Gulf of Mexico
photo: A “living shoreline” of oyster shells just a few miles from Half Moon Reef; many Gulf Coast bays and estuaries have little to no natural oyster shell left. © Jerod Foster
While oysters are one of the most delicious bivalves around, they are, more importantly, the unsung heroes of the Gulf of Mexico. They play a vital role in protecting our shorelines and the health of our oceans, and contribute tremendously to the economic vitality of the five states whose future is intertwined with that of the Gulf: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. That’s why The Nature Conservancy is working to restore Half Moon Reef, an underwater oyster colony in the heart of Matagorda Bay, which is one of the most productive fisheries for blue crabs, oysters and shrimp in Texas. Once massive, Half Moon Reef today has little to no cultch–or fossilized oyster shell–material left.
While we’ve previously constructed new oyster beds and restored existing reefs along the upper and lower Texas coast, the 45-acre Half Moon Reef will be the Conservancy’s first reef constructed from the ground up. It’s also one of the largest restoration projects around the country, said Boze Hancock, research scientist for the Conservancy’s Global Marine Team.
The reef will be sub-tidal (fully submerged underwater) and designed to maximize structural complexity–a more diverse structural habitat leads to differently sized niches, which not only attract oysters, but a variety of fish, shellfish, small invertebrates and sea turtles. That variety ensures a healthy, thriving Gulf ecosystem. “We are not [just] restoring oysters, we are restoring habitat,” Hancock said. Once complete, Half Moon Reef will mimic an underwater karst system, characterized by niches, caves and passageways.
photo: As the sun sets on the construction site, itís important to remember the Gulf of Mexico is considered the last, best hope for oyster reef restoration. ©Jerod Foster
In the 19th century, there were extensive oyster reefs throughout the region’s various bays. Soon enough, oyster shells became a popular construction material and people began to harvest on a large scale. By the first half of the 20th century, oyster shells were a hot commodity and dredging intensified; in the process, millions of cubic yards of oyster shell were removed from reefs hugging the Texas coast. After decades of commercial fishing and overfishing, the global oyster population was decimated. Roughly 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs have disappeared since the late 19th century, with many once-bountiful reefs rendered functionally extinct due to overharvesting and other causes. Three-quarters of the remaining reefs are in just five locations in North America; of those regions, the Gulf of Mexico–which has lost about 50 percent of its reefs–is considered the last, best hope for full restoration of healthy oyster reefs.
(There is much more to the story of Half Moon Reef! Continue reading here…)
photo: The historic Half Moon Reef is functionally dead, but it still holds a few treasures. This oyster spat was pulled from the bottom of the bay. ©Jerod Foster