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 key interlocking areas to restore our degraded oyster reef habitats: Researching the best practices for restoring degraded reef habitat; teaching the public about the value of recycling oyster shell to build new reefs; and assisting with research and training for the Texas aquaculture industry that can take vital pressure off existing reefs.
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 former Associate Director Gail Sutton and Dr. Pollack, now has over 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 throughout the community and through annual reef-building events, inviting volunteers to build new reef by laying oyster shell in Coastal Bend waters.
Texas is the most recent state in the nation to legalize oyster aquaculture in state waters, a promising sustainable alternative to oyster fisheries which also provides ecosystem services to Texas bays. HRI is working to launch the Oyster Resource and Recovery Center, a workforce development award from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality which will provide virtual training modules to persons interested in oyster aquaculture.