Oysters are, without question, the unsung heroes of the Gulf of Mexico. They play a vital role in protecting the health of our oceans and contribute tremendously to the economic vitality of the five states whose futures are intertwined with the Gulf: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
That’s why The Nature Conservancy has made oyster reef restoration a cornerstone of our efforts to protect and restore the Gulf Coast. Our most exciting project to date is the successful restoration of Half Moon Reef, an underwater oyster colony in the heart of Texas’ Matagorda Bay. Completed in 2014, the 54-acre Half Moon Reef stands as one of the largest restoration projects around the country, said Boze Hancock, research scientist for the Conservancy’s Global Marine Team.
It is sub-tidal (fully submerged underwater) and designed to maximize structural complexity. A more diverse structural habitat leads to differently sized niches, which attract not only oysters, but a variety of fish, shellfish, small invertebrates and sea turtles; that, in turn, ensures a healthy, thriving Gulf ecosystem.
“There aren’t many other projects, within [the Conservancy] or otherwise, that are at the scale of Half Moon Reef. This is a really exciting trajectory in oyster reef restoration,” Hancock said.
Surveys of the reef show this complex design is working. Oysters have attached to roughly 70 percent of the reef’s total surface and between January 2014 and May 2016, the size of those oysters increased an astonishing 551 percent. Biodiversity is 40 percent higher at Half Moon Reef when compared to the adjacent bay floor; biomass, which helps measure the level of sea life in and around the reef, is 1,014 percent greater than at nearby areas.
Better still, this innovative restoration project has spurred some exciting social and economic benefits. Local anglers began fishing around the reef in 2014, as construction was nearing its end. As word spread among area fishing guides about this new hotspot, Half Moon Reef quickly earned a reputation as a location that “holds the fish.” A 2016 survey by the Conservancy and Texas Sea Grant also found:
- Increased recreational fishing at Half Moon Reef added $691,000 to Texas’ gross domestic product year over year and generated an additional $1.27 million in annual economic activity
- Half Moon Reef has created a dozen new jobs and $465,000 in annual labor income
- 94 percent of fishermen reported that the restored habitat at Half Moon Reef offered a more satisfying experience than other fishing locations
Half Moon Reef “has not only met our expectations, it has exceeded them,” said Mark Dumesnil, associate director of coastal restoration in Texas.
Jumpstarting Coastal Resilience
As communities learn to adapt to a changing climate, healthy oyster reefs will become an increasingly integral part of that process. They serve as natural buffers against rising sea tides and hurricanes by forming breakwaters that protect shorelines and wetlands from erosion. Those breakwaters keep critical habitat for plants and animals intact. They are also one of nature’s most efficient filtration systems, stripping pollutants and minerals from the millions of gallons of freshwater that flow into the sea. Research shows a healthy one-acre reef can filter approximately 24 million gallons of water each day, making them critical to maintaining a balanced marine ecosystem.
Using the success of Half Moon Reef as a blueprint, the Conservancy is spearheading three new large-scale oyster reef restoration projects: a 40-acre reef in Galveston Bay, a 45-acre reef in Copano Bay, north of Corpus Christi, Texas, and a 12-acre reef in Florida’s Pensacola Bay. Taken together, these projects promise to create fully functional marine habitats that will help restore the health and heritage of the entire Gulf region.