College students Matt Vale and Riley Engemoen are traveling throughout Texas this summer, visiting Conservancy preserves and documenting their adventures through Matt's pen and Riley's video camera.
By Matt Vale
Riley and I caught wind of the Nature Conservancy’s project to restore Half Moon Oyster Reef in Matagorda Bay, and, ever hungry for glamour, drove to the Conservancy’s Mad Island Marsh Preserve, on the bay.
You think, “Egads, man—oysters? Glamour?” Actually, they’re crucially charismatic. Dr. Jennifer Pollack, a researcher at Texas A&M Corpus Christi studying the restoration, told us: “Oysters are often called ecosystem engineers. They create something that wasn’t there, and bring in a whole suite of other organisms because of their presence.”
What they create is structure: oyster reefs are the masses that form, layer by layer, when new oyster generations cement themselves onto previous generations. Reef structures are life-magnets—everybody needs a place to hide and feel secure. (Stylish family returns to Park Avenue penthouse, naked mole rats wriggle in burrow, parasitoid wasp burrows into caterpillar; home sweet home).
The only shelter structures in flat-bottom Matagorda Bay are living things like sea grasses and oyster reefs—that makes reefs some of the only places where marine species can thrive in high concentration. Oysters need structure too: larvae can only grow into fully-shelled adults by adhering to a hard surface, and in Matagorda, preexisting oyster reefs provide the only solid substrates. Once an area of reef is degraded back to soft mud, oysters can’t easily recolonize it. To help Half Moon Reef grow back, the Conservancy will sink limestone and concrete rubble to the bay bottom, providing more hard surfaces—surrogate oyster-parents.
The Conservancy’s work is timely; oyster reefs are the most endangered marine habitats in the world, more so than mangroves, sea grasses and coral reefs. And the Gulf of Mexico is one of the last places on earth where reefs are still salvageable. We need oyster reefs. The important fish habitat they provide supports coastal communities that depend on recreational and commercial fishing. Reefs near land break waves and mitigate shoreline erosion. They even improve water quality: each oyster feeds by filtering 40-60 gallons of water daily.
We left Mad Island around dawn and boated to the restoration site in the bay. Dave Buzan, Conservancy partner and Reef Design Manager, had sunk cages full of hard substrates to test how well oysters—and more importantly, other creatures—would colonize them. “The whole purpose is to provide a wide variety of habitats that will support a wide variety of organisms,” Dave says.
Dave and I dive down to retrieve the cages. Everything is coated with organisms: algae, barnacles, snail eggs, sea squirts, and lots of spat—larval oysters who’ve settled and started building shells. As we lift the cages, small crabs and fish spill out in oddly pleasant showers. Life flocked to the substrates and exploded. Good news for the project; it shows that the charismatic oysters and their entourage of organisms will settle on the restored reef and thrive. More life-explosions: a consciousness-less (yet surely well-meaning) jellyfish drapes her delicate tentacles across my neck; off the bow, smooth-bodied dolphins wrestle and mate.
I fill my cupped palms with a pool of fifty tiny porcelain crabs from the cages. “Oyster reefs remind me of a Jonathan Swift poem,” Dave says. “‘So, naturalists observe, a flea / Hath smaller fleas that on him prey; / And these have smaller still to bite ‘em; / And so proceed ad infinitum.’ Oysters provide habitat on different scales.” Reefs are living, breathing Russian nesting dolls, habitat for every size of creature from microscopic parasites to pelicans. Dave twirled a twig with an oyster attached. “You’ve got this stick, which isn’t a lot of habitat, but an oyster has attached to it, and now that oyster is habitat for a barnacle,” one cemented on the other.
“And that barnacle probably had small critters living inside its shell.” Ad infinitum.
Back at Mad Island, things bristle with maternity. A bobcat trots past to draw me and Riley away from her cubs. At a roadside pond, seven-foot Mamma Gator slides toward us, wraithlike, and sets her forelimbs on the bank, mouth robotically agape and hissing thickly. Her nest is back in the reeds. And somewhere behind her inscrutable black-glass eye, some outrageous maternal love clicks with terrific exactitude. With beautiful precision.
Riley and I kayak into the bay. There’s a twelve foot gator on the shore—dead, but tremendous—and some live ones off our bows, slipping underwater. We get out of the kayaks in the middle of Mad Island Lake, and absentmindedly let them drift a quarter mile away. The lake’s huge, but only 18 inches deep—(deep enough for gators?) The water’s too shallow to swim; the mud’s too deep to walk. We start to crawl, I lagging with the camera held aloft. A dreamlike version of some surreal afterlife; a Sisyphean crawl through blue-skied paradise.
Riley finally paddles up: “I was a little freaked out by gators. But I guess if it’s our time to go…” And at that moment, you would observe, calmly, the artistry of alligator jaws in performance, of one consciousness-creature being absorbed, unimaginably, into another.
And if life ever gets too serious, try crawling through dreamy Matagorda mud, waving a camera overhead and wondering aloud about quesadillas, puffy clouds and alligator metabolism. It’s good for the soul, and a renewable natural resource.
Matt Vale is an English & Religious Studies major at Rice University.