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.

A closeup of a cluster of oysters in the water.
HEALTHY OYSTERS, CLEAN WATER In one day, a healthy, 25-acre oyster reef can filter roughly the same amount of water as used by the City of Houston in the same period. © Clay Bolt

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.

A reef of oyster shells stretches out across Matagorda Bay, Texas.
BENEFICIAL BIVALVES In some cases, oysters can serve as biological breakwaters, helping to provide a natural barrier to waves and sea-level rise—especially as our climate continues to change. © Jerod Foster

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% 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% 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.

(ALL RIGHTS) June 2010. Low tide exposes the oyster reefs in Corpus Christi Bay near Island Moorings Yacht Club and Marina in Port Aransas, Texas. The Conservancy has helped protect more than 3 million acres along the Gulf Coast and has made the region a priority focus. With an emphasis on bays and estuaries, TNC will continue to conserve and restore sensitive coastal habitats. Photo credit: Erika Nortemann/© The Nature Conservancy
Oyster Reefs Rebuilding oyster habitat ensures that we're giving back as we take, keeping our Gulf coastline healthy and thriving. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Consider the Oyster by Bill Rodney

They say oysters are the unsung heroes of our oceans—but no more. Here's a little ditty that sings their praises.

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MUSIC AND LYRICS BY BILL RODNEY WITH YANIV BRENNER ON PIANO AND ORGAN
 
Verse 1:
Consider the humble oyster living on the muddy bottom of the bay
Why it’s just a rock that’s filled with snot, I heard somebody say
But did you know that just one oyster can filter 50 gallons of water in one day?
Now imagine 10 million oysters on a reef, whoa that blows my mind away
 
Verse 2:
When oysters filter water you know, they strain the small stuff out
Nutritious, delicious phytoplankton baby, that’s what it's all about
But of all the stuff they filter, only some is gonna make it to their mouth
The rest gets wrapped in a mucous ball and pseudo-spitted out
 
Chorus:
Oysters – they’re filtering machines
Oysters – they'll keep the water clean
Oysters – they’re habitat producers
Oysters – wave energy reducers
Oysters, oysters, oysters…they’re not just for breakfast anymore
 
Verse 3:
And another thing about oysters, they build these gnarly reefs
That are home to crabs and shrimps and things, that Mr. Redfish likes to eat
Yeah that’s his destination when he's looking to obtain a tasty treat
And that stimulates production in the fishes, yeah I think that’s pretty neat
 
Verse 4:
When oysters build their gnarly reefs in skinny waters near the marshy shore
This creates an opportunity for the oyster to contribute even more
They attenuate wave energy when the winds blow hard and make the white caps roar
The rugose reefs reduce erosive forces, yeah baby that’s a score
 
Chorus:
Oysters – they’re filtering machines
Oysters – help keep the water clean
Oysters – they’re habitat producers
Oysters – wave energy reducers
Oysters, oysters, oysters…the best come from Texas, don’t’ mess with the rest cause, they’re not just for breakfast anymore
 
A few people in a small boat with supplies conducting an oyster restoration project in Matagorda Bay, Texas.
A NEW RESTORATION APPROACH In the Gulf and beyond, supporting sustainable, productive fisheries while protecting marine habitats gives us the biggest win-win scenario. © Jerod Foster

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% 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. 

A blue swimmer crab sits on a shallow oyster reef with its claws outstretched.
PROVIDING HABITAT Species depend on oyster reefs for health and habitat—four years after Half Moon Reef's completion, biodiversity was 1,014% greater on the reef than the adjacent bay bottom. © Matt Lloyd

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. Then, with funding dedicated by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, we collaborated with partners to create 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.

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
A close up of an oyster in a researcher's gloved 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
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
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

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. 

Oyster Restoration Report