A marina full of sailboats with an orange and pink sunset behind it in a cloud-streaked sky.
Matagorda Bay Sunset over Matagorda Bay. © Jerod Foster

Stories in Texas

Turning the Tide for Texas Oysters

Getting it right for the Texas Gulf Coast means getting it right for oysters.

This page was updated on January 7, 2021.

1/4/21 reef update:

Construction on our Galveston Bay oyster reef restoration project is now complete! Nearly 20,000 tons of limestone boulders and rocks have been dropped in the water to create a full, 40-acre oyster reef—with 15 acres designated for oyster restoration and 25 acres open for commercial harvesting. Read on to find out more about how this hybrid approach to oyster restoration supports both the environment and economy along the Texas Gulf Coast.


 

Consider the Oyster

In Texas, that might call to mind your favorite raw bar or drum up memories of family vacations along the Gulf Coast. But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to these underwater powerhouses. In addition to filtering water and promoting marine biodiversity, oyster shells have long been used as livestock feed, in manufacturing and as paving material—the Houston Astrodome alone used 500,000 cubic yards of oyster shells to construct its stadium and parking lot.

In the Gulf of Mexico, fisheries serve as the cornerstone of a $220 million-dollar national industry, producing nearly half of all oysters consumed in the U.S. each year and impacting the state economy to the tune of $43 million annually. Put simply: thriving oyster populations are vital to the health and prosperity of the Gulf region.

But the alarming decline of shellfish reefs has made oyster reefs one of the most threatened marine habitats on Earth. A TNC-led study found that 85 percent of oyster reefs globally have been lost due to overharvesting, hurricanes, disease and changes in freshwater flows to Gulf rivers and streams. While just 20-50 percent of original oyster reefs remain in the Gulf of Mexico, it is considered the last, best hope for full restoration of healthy oyster populations. And that’s just what The Nature Conservancy aims to do.

Oyster reef along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Oyster Reefs Rebuilding oyster habitat ensures that we're giving back at the same time that we're taking—keeping our Gulf coastline healthy and thriving. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Lessons from Half Moon Reef

Half Moon Reef in Texas’ Matagorda Bay is a cornerstone of The Nature Conservancy’s restoration efforts along the Gulf of Mexico. Once one of the largest and most productive reefs in all of Texas, by the late 20th century, Half Moon Reef had lay barren for decades. In 2014, The Nature Conservancy and partners collaborated on a multi-year project to restore the reef, using more than 100,000 tons of limestone to bring this Texas resource back to life. 

Today the reef is teeming with marine wildlife. Oysters can now be found on 70 percent of the reef’s surface, where they’re helping to improve water quality, bolster sea grass growth and promote biodiversity. It’s also become a hot spot for anglers, who refer to the reef as an area “that holds the fish,” and has helped to generate an additional $1.27 million in annual economic activity for the state of Texas through tourism, fishing guide excursions and recreational fishing. 

Report

A barge full of limestone boulders to be used for oyster reef construction at Galveston Bay.
Building a Reef Construction at Galveston Bay, where limestone boulders are fully submerged in water to create a 40-acre oyster reef—and an entire marine habitat under the water's surface. © HDR
An oyster in a researcher's hand.
Stacked Benefits A portion of the reef at Galveston Bay will help restore Gulf oyster populations and boost marine biodiversity while the other will be open for commercial harvesting. © Pollack Lab/Harte Research Institute

Copano and Galveston Bay—and Beyond

The success of Half Moon Reef has created a blueprint for coastal restoration across the region. In 2019, with support from the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment, TNC spearheaded a 45-acre reef restoration project in Copano Bay, north of Corpus Christi, where we took a hybrid approach to reef restoration.

Building off the Half Moon Reef model, half of the reef is a habitat reef, creating a nursery not only for oysters, but fish and other marine life, as well. The other half will be open for commercial oyster harvesting. Now, with funding dedicated by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, we've kicked off construction on a new, 40-acre oyster reef in Texas’ Galveston Bay, using a similar hybrid model that designates 15 acres for oyster restoration and 25 acres as commercially harvestable.

This innovative reef design highlights the importance of protecting marine ecology to safeguard oysters for ecology and economy alike. It also illustrates how conservation can bring often-competing interests to the table around a common goal: more oysters. Supporting sustainable, productive fisheries while protecting marine habitats gives us the biggest win-win scenario and proves that we don’t have to choose between ecological health and economic prosperity—we can help people and nature thrive, together.