Oysters are an important ecological and economic resource, but oyster reefs, once dominant habitats in estuaries worldwide, have experienced greater losses than any other marine habitat. It is estimated that 90 percent of oyster reef habitats have been lost, compared to historic abundance. When oysters are harvested and removed for sale, that destructive dredging destroys the sea bottom. The removed shell almost never returns to the bay and is lost to those reefs, instead ending up in landfills as trash. Young oysters depend upon the hard shell substrate provided by reefs for attachment and growth. Although Texas is the second largest commercial oyster harvest in the U.S., with millions of pounds of oysters harvested from its bays each year, no mechanism exists for oysters to be returned to bay waters to maintain existing reefs and restore degraded habitat. The dramatic loss of oyster reef habitat across the Gulf impacts us all — we lose valuable benefits of oyster reefs as hurricane protection, natural water filtration, and fisheries habitat.
HRI is working in three key interlocking areas to restore our degraded oyster reef habitats: Establishing an aquaculture industry in Texas that can take vital pressure off existing reefs; researching the best practices for restoring degraded reef habitat; and teaching the public about the value of recycling oyster shell to build new reefs.
Texas is the most recent state in the nation to legalize oyster mariculture in state waters. HRI Marine Resource Development Chair Dr. Joe Fox, a world renowned aquaculture expert, helped to lead that effort in partnership with lawmakers and oyster industry officials. HRI is building the first research oyster hatchery on the Texas coast — our Texas Oyster Center. Funded by the RESTORE Act and environmental fines paid out after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the center is a partnership with Texas A&M AgriLife Research. Researchers will grow oyster larvae to support reef restoration and train a local workforce for careers in oyster mariculture and sustainable seafood careers. HRI is also building oyster farm demonstration projects in Copano and Matagorda bays to test the effectiveness of various common methods used to grow oysters in natural waters, using science to determine the best methods for our Texas coast.
HRI Chair Coastal Conservation and Restoration Chair Dr. Jennifer Pollack is an expert in oyster ecology and is studying the effectiveness and longevity of oyster restoration projects. Because of their proven environmental benefits, oyster reef restoration has become an increasingly popular environmental mitigation method in coastal communities worldwide and researchers have seen the success of these projects locally — a 2,000 linear foot reef installed by HRI and partners immediately before Hurricane Harvey in Goose Island State Park incredibly survived the storm and saw new growth in the months afterward. By grounding reef restoration efforts in sound science HRI will ensure these projects stand the test of time and deliver maximum benefits in habitat, water quality, reef form, and function.
HRI was the first group in Texas to reclaim oyster shells from local restaurants and return them to our bays, and our oyster recycling program, "Sink Your Shucks," led by Associate Director Gail Sutton and Dr. Pollack, is now celebrating a decade of success. Public outreach is a major component of "Sink Your Shucks," spreading our message of environmental stewardship and educating the public about the oyster's role in our ecosystem. Sink Your Shucks makes science curriculum available free to teachers; runs Oysters in the Classroom, a program that allows students to observe and study living oysters; and sponsors multiple reef-building events, inviting volunteers to build new reef by laying oyster shell in its designated reefing areas.