Crews offload shell and limestone that will form the basis for new oyster reefs in Alabama’s Mobile Bay | Credit: Alabama Marine Resources Division

​Oyster projects gain momentum along Gulf Coast

NFWF supports projects in Alabama and other Gulf States

Divers dipping below the surface of Alabama’s bays and nearshore coastal waters are finding tantalizing evidence that a massive effort to expand that state’s oyster reefs by nearly 30 percent has begun to pay early dividends. Crawling along a mix of oyster shell and limestone recently placed on the bottom by state workers and contractors, these underwater researchers have discovered tens of thousands of baby oysters, or spat, attached to this new reef material.

“We did dives in an area called Heron Bay,” says Chris Blankenship, director of Alabama’s Marine Resources Division. “In areas where we did not plant the cultch material (shell and limestone), we found an average of 242 spat per acre. In the area we planted in the spring of 2014, there were 20,000 spat per acre.

“In another area called Cedar Point West, we found 1,700 spat per acre where we hadn’t planted, and right at 24,000 per acre where we had planted.  So you can see, there’s quite a benefit.”

The landscape-scale oyster restoration project, headed up by the state’s Marine Resources Division and supported by a $3.75-million award from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), aims to restore 600 acres of oyster reefs by planting 50,000 cubic yards of cultch, disseminating seed oysters and cultivating existing reef beds in Mobile Bay, Mississippi Sound and Bon Secour Bay.

State officials, scientists and conservation groups hope that by acting on a large scale, and by concentrating on the sustainability of oyster populations over the long term, they can reverse a trend that has left the state with just 2,200 acres of viable oyster reef.

Though huge by local standards, the project in Alabama represents just one piece of an enormous, multi-tiered, regional effort to revitalize coastal water along the Gulf of Mexico following the disastrous Deepwater Oil Spill in 2010. Government agencies, conservation groups, commercial harvesters and local communities from Texas through Florida are working together to use oysters to build “living shorelines,” expand public shell-fishing grounds and re-establish historic reefs so this cornerstone species can thrive once again.

“Oyster reefs are a big part of a productive marine ecosystem,” Blankenship says. “Oysters filter water, remove nitrogen, and they also provide habitat for crabs and a variety of small fish, which are in turn used by larger fish. Healthy oyster reefs are a good indicator of a healthy overall ecosystem.”

Critical to the health of the Gulf

Over the past 100 years or more, oyster reefs in Alabama and elsewhere along the nation’s coastlines have suffered from erosion and sedimentation, pollution, drought, predation and overharvesting. Along many parts of the Gulf of Mexico, these long-term, negative impacts were magnified in 2010 as a result of the oil spill and related cleanup efforts.

In quick action following the spill, NFWF invested $22.9 million from its Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife and other sources into conservation actions to minimize the effects of the oil spill on key species such as shorebirds, waterfowl and marsh birds, marine fish, seabirds, sea turtles and oysters.

As part of these quick-response efforts, NFWF awarded a grant of $1.1 million to The Nature Conservancy to restore oyster reefs in Louisiana and Alabama. The project established new oyster reefs as part of a large-scale “living shoreline” initiative in coastal waters of Alabama.

Judy Haner, director of Marine and Freshwater Programs for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, helped conceptualize and initiate the $150-million project, named “100-1000 Restore Coastal Alabama” for its goal of building 100 miles of oyster reefs and enhancing 1,000 acres of coastal marsh and seagrass.

Haner says that as such major oyster restoration projects launch and unfold along the Gulf Coast, a sense of excitement and synergy continues to grow among state and federal agencies, conservation groups, private landowners and commercial interests.

“We’ve got more tight-knit relationships than we’ve ever had,” Haner says. “Since the spill, we’ve all been thinking about our respective parts in the big picture of restoration for the coast. We all want healthy coastal waters and thriving coastal resources that are sustainable for the long term. We all want to support local cultures and livelihoods, to help protect private coastal properties, and to preserve all the activities that come with living on the coast -- boating and fishing and everything else.

“We’re all in it for the long haul, and everybody feels very good about that.”

Closer collaboration has helped advance knowledge needed to successfully rebuild complex marine habitats such as oyster reefs, Haner says. Various groups have faced steep learning curves when developing best practices across different locales, ranging from building breakwater structures to protect new reefs to making sure organizations don’t end up competing for limited cultch materials.

Sharing lessons learned, Haner says, boosts a wide array of oyster restoration efforts along the coast of Alabama and other Gulf states.

“These projects are not one-size-fits-all,” Haner says. “You really need to look at what’s happening with the entire system.”

By helping to align resources and build scientific knowledge, oyster restoration projects such as those funded through NFWF’s Recovered Oil Fund helped set the stage for even larger-scale projects like those funded through Natural Resource Damage Assessment program.

The scope of work expanded dramatically after 2013, when a U.S. District Court approved two plea agreements resolving certain criminal charges against BP and Transocean that arose from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The agreements directed a total of $2.544 billion to NFWF’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF) for projects benefiting the natural resources of the Gulf Coast that were impacted by the spill.

GEFB support enabled Alabama officials to embark on their 600-acre oyster reef restoration project.

“By the time we finish this project, it should have a dramatic impact on oyster resources for Alabama,” Blakenship says. “This project, coupled with a Natural Resources Damage Assessment cultch planting project that we have, represents the largest amount of shell we’ve ever planted over a three-year period.”

The project in Alabama also could breathe new life into the state’s commercial seafood operations, as  these new reefs in Alabama are being added to shell-fishing grounds worked by commercial harvesters.

“There are different types of oyster restoration projects,” Blankenship says. “Some are done within sanctuaries, and some are done as part of shoreline stabilization projects. Ours are in public harvest areas. All of these restoration activities work hand-in-hand to contribute the overall success of oyster recovery efforts.”

Through early 2015, the Alabama team had completed two rounds of reef building – at least two more rounds are expected before the project’s completion. The work is done in the late spring and early fall, timed to coincide with peak oyster spawning periods and give larval oysters a fresh surface on which to attach and grow.

When not managing the creation of new oyster reefs, project leaders in Alabama monitor planted sites, conduct surveys of commercial oyster harvesters and prepare for the next round of planting cultch and oyster stock.

“We have very accurate records on what’s being harvested,” Blankenship says. “Commercial fishermen have to come down to our oyster managing stations every day to report how much they harvested and where. We are able to track what’s coming off the reefs every day, so we can react very quickly to what’s happening out on the reefs by closing certain areas or opening others as the harvest data is analyzed daily. Once we get enough oysters planted and get them going, it should be self-sustaining.”

Few people appreciate the importance of sustainable oyster harvests more than Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries, a family-owned seafood processor and wholesale distributor that’s been headquartered on the banks of Bon Secour Bay for more than 100 years. Nelson’s company handles more than 6 million pounds of oysters in the shell every year, harvested from many Gulf coast states.

“Oysters are up there with shrimp, in term of tonnage and value,” Nelson says. “It’s an extremely important fishery along most of the northern Gulf Coast.”

Nelson says he’s hopeful the proliferation of oyster restoration projects in the wake of the 2010 spill can help various government agencies and organizations gain traction in what has historically been a challenging endeavor.

“What I’m beginning to see is people taking a much longer-term perspective, to look at what kind of infrastructure they need to ensure a sustainable program, through good times and bad,” Nelson says. “We need to be looking at what we can be doing every year, across the Gulf States, to increase our sustainability, to increase our resiliency to environmental changes that we see coming, and to those that we can’t see but know come regularly.”

Sustained, “programmatic” reef-building activities can help make sure states are ready to take advantage when weather and other factors align for peak oyster reproduction, he says.

“You’ve just got to stay in the game, because you can’t know when you’re going to have that blockbuster spat set that basically sets the stage for the next 10 years of production,” Nelson says.

NFWF’s investment in oyster restoration in Alabama and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast might be coming at just such an opportune time, Nelson says.

“The climatic cycle we’re in right now seems to be very favorable to success in this type of activity.”

More oysters, in Alabama and other Gulf States, would be a boon not just to local coastal habitats, but also coastal communities.

“We all feel like increasing the quantity of oysters in each of our states, combined, can have a big impact on what’s produced throughout the Gulf,” Blankenship says. “That means a lot to the coastal economies of all of our states.”