Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies
Spring 2012 newsletter
Oyster Recycling
 Success at Goose Island
   Community combines efforts to restore oyster reef

by Carrie Robertson

A team of research scientists from Harte Research Institute and the Department of Life Sciences completed its second successful oyster reef restoration project this spring. The year-long effort brought together many members of the community and resulted in new oyster habitat being created in St. Charles Bay near Rockport, Texas.Volunteers form a fireman's brigade - click photo to enlarge

The restoration project site is located adjacent to Goose Island State Park near a fishing pier and a large area of existing oyster reef. The park's interpretive staff will use the restored reef as an educational platform to teach park goers about oysters, their life cycle and the important role they play in the marine ecosystem.

Initiated and led by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s (TAMUCC) Dr. Jennifer Pollack and HRI's Dr. Paul Montagna, the project is part of an ongoing effort called "Sink Your Shucks" that recycles oyster shells to enhance habitat. The team’s other key players are HRI’s Gail Sutton and Allison Knight. Students from TAMUCC including Brittany Blomberg, Jaimie Nevins, Lindsey George, Maria Rodriguez and Erika Diaz assist with research and coordination.

The Goose Island oyster reef restoration was built upon knowledge gained during the team’s first oyster reef rebuilding project in Copano Bay in July 2011, which had good results. Within a month after the Copano Bay project’s completion, fish had recruited to the new reef. Within six months, new oysters were growing.

The oyster reef building process starts with oyster shells recycled by two downtown Corpus Christi seafood restaurants, Water Street Oyster Bar and Water Street Seafood Company. Whereas most seafood restaurants send their oyster shells to the landfill, TAMUCC’s Oyster Recycling Program works with the restaurants to reclaim the shucked shells and place them back into the bay to create habitat for more oysters. The restaurants benefit as well, since recycling their shells is more cost efficient than paying to dump the heavy shells at the landfill.

Water Street Restaurants’ owner Brad Lomax has his workers set aside their shucked oyster shells in special containers for recycling. The shells are picked up twice a week and transported to the Port of Corpus Christi, where they are quarantined for six months, drying and bleaching in the sun to kill any potential pathogens. Afterwards, the shells are transported to the project site – in this case, the shallow waters of St. Charles Bay near Goose Island State Park, about 30 miles north of Corpus Christi.

Why all the effort? Building habitat for oysters not only grows more oysters but also provides many other benefits such as improved water quality through their filter feeding activities. An adult can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Oyster reefs also provide food and shelter for a variety of other marine organisms including fish, shrimp, crabs and shorebirds.

How does it work? Baby, or larval, oysters start out swimming in the water column, but they need a hard surface to adhere to in order to form a shell and transform into young “spat” oysters. When recycled oyster shells are placed on the bay bottom, they provide the perfect substrate for this process. However, when oysters are harvested, the shells are removed as well, which reduces the amount of habitat available for new generations of reef builders. Replacing oyster shells back into the bay helps continue the natural life cycle of the oyster.

But getting the shells from the plate to the bottom of the bay requires the combined efforts of a large community of people. A grant from the Texas General Land Office funds the "bagging" part of the project, in which volunteers stuff recycled oyster shells into mesh bags. When the bags of shells are placed on the bay bottom, they get encased by newly recruiting oysters that begin to create a reef. "The bags are an integral part of the process in that they hold the shells together and prevent the shells from otherwise sinking into the muddy bottom," Sutton explained. The research for her master’s degree, completed in 2011, focused on the economic viability of oyster recycling.

For the team's first Goose Island project, community volunteers pitched in to help the HRI team on three work days – March 10, April 28 and May 19 – resulting in more than 40,000 pounds of oyster shell being deposited into the bay to create the educational oyster reef.

About 500 volunteers worked as a team to fill the bags with shells. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they passed the 25-pound bags from land to water – fireman’s brigade style – until all 1,800 bags were deposited at the restoration location in the bay.

Other partners in the effort include Texas Parks & Wildlife, Coastal Conservation Association, Texas State Aquarium, Moody High School Marine Science Club, State Farm Youth Advisory Board, Coastal Bend Bays Foundation and Gulf of Mexico Foundation.

HRI’s oyster team is planning its third oyster shell reef building project to be conducted this summer. It will also be near Goose Island but in a two-acre stretch of water on the Aransas Bay side. The new reef will be designed to help create fish habitat and will be studied for its ability to reduce water velocities to prevent shoreline erosion.

    © 2012 Harte Research Institute