HOUSTON — Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has begun construction on two oyster reef restoration projects in Galveston Bay funded by multi-million dollar federal grants to restore hurricane damage. One project is in East Galveston Bay, an area hit hard by Hurricane Ike. The other project is located along the north facing shoreline of Eagle Point near the community of San Leon.
Oysters feed by filtering tiny plants known as phytoplankton from the water. This filter feeding also removes silt and contaminants from the water, making oysters nature’s bio-filters. Oyster reefs also provide habitat for numerous bottom dwelling fish and invertebrates which are in turn food for larger game fish. Scientists refer to these various functions of oyster reefs, including providing product for the commercial fishing industry, as “ecosystem services.”
The East Bay oyster restoration project aims to restore 20 acres of oyster habitat for the purpose of helping the struggling oyster industry. East Bay lost approximately 80% of its oyster habitat due to sedimentation caused by Hurricane Ike. The area where the reefs are being built was once covered by extensive natural oyster reefs. These reefs were lost due to sedimentation caused by oyster shell mining activities during the 1960’s and from Hurricane Ike one year ago. TPWD plans to deposit a layer of reef building materials (called “cultch”) onto the area. Once in place, the cultch will attract planktonic oyster larvae. These larvae will settle onto the cultch and grow into adult oysters. The restoration site is included within the area of East Bay that will be closed for two years to commercial oyster harvest from public reefs to give oyster resources in the area time to recover. After 2 years, all public oyster reefs will be reopened to commercial oyster fishing.
The other oyster restoration project, located along Galveston Bay’s western shore, will restore 2 acres of oyster reef habitat in 2009. These 2 acres will be divided up into several smaller patches of reef habitat. The purpose of this project is to improve recreational fishing in the area and to provide other ecosystem services attributed to oyster reefs. The reefs will be located near privately owned piers and in waters closed to commercial oyster fishing due to high bacteria counts. The project has enlisted local pier owners to grow baby oysters by hanging mesh bags filled with oyster shells from their piers, a process known as “oyster gardening”. Gardened oysters will be deposited on top of the reefs after construction is completed in order to quickly establish an oyster population.
These projects will provide benefits to the ecosystem and to both the recreational and commercial fisheries in Galveston bay. TPWD has partnered with the Galveston Bay Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this project and will continue to look for opportunities to continue this type of work in the future.