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Gulf Oyster Reefs Are Hurting. Now There's Help From Oil Spill Aid Money

Dec 18, 2018
Originally published on December 18, 2018 11:43 am

Off Cedar Key on Florida's west coast, the water is some of the most pristine in the Gulf. The estuary there has long supported a thriving seafood industry.

Sue Colson, a city commissioner in Cedar Key, says one of the best places to harvest oysters used to be the Lone Cabbage oyster reef, about a mile offshore. When the tide was really low, she says there were so many oysters that she and her husband could walk along the reef picking them up.

"We would pull our children out of school on a really, really, really, really blow out tide," she says. "And everybody would pick up and get as many as you could in that time when they're exposed."

Those days are long gone on Lone Cabbage Reef. Over the last thirty years, Peter Frederick, a wildlife ecologist from the University of Florida, says oysters, the mollusks that build and make up the reef, have died off.

"Once they die and you lose those," Frederick says, "the reef starts degrading and losing elevation. We've been seeing about three to four inches loss a year."

When the reef is gone, it leaves behind sand bars that young oysters can't attach to.

Decades of decline

All along the Gulf coast, it's not a good time for oysters. Scientists say eighty percent of the Gulf's oyster reefs have been lost in recent decades. And harvests are way down.

Over time, Texas has seen production cut by half. A few years ago, Florida's Apalachicola Bay, long the heart of the state's oyster industry, was declared a fishery disaster. This year Alabama canceled its season entirely because there were so few oysters.

There are many reasons: overharvesting, drought, even hurricanes. But ecologist Frederick says a major factor is a lack of freshwater. Agriculture and development is claiming much of the water that used to flow down rivers, leaving estuaries like this one too salty.

"The eastern oyster," he says, "doesn't like full strength seawater. And at high salinities it tends to become susceptible to its diseases and parasites, and so they tend to decline fairly rapidly."

Here, and throughout the Gulf, a lot of work is going on to help oysters and the communities that depend on them.

Frederick has been overseeing efforts to restore Lone Cabbage reef. It's a nearly $7 million dollar project that has rebuilt the three-and-a-half mile long reef. Standing on a barge alongside it, Frederick says instead of oyster shells, this reef was rebuilt using rock.

"We've had to have heavy equipment," he says, "like barges and cranes, trucks and breaking equipment" to transport the rock from a quarry.

It's a project paid for with money from the BP oil spill settlement.

'Once-in-a-generation' opportunity

Billions of oysters were killed in the spill, and that was just a small part of the extensive damage done to the environment. $160 million of the fund is earmarked for oysters.

Bob Bendick oversees several projects to restore oysters in the Gulf for the Nature Conservancy. He calls the oil spill fund "a unique, maybe once-in-a-generation, or forever opportunity to reverse the decline of oysters in the Gulf."

The Nature Conservancy recently helped rebuild an oyster reef in Texas' Matagorda Bay. It's beginning a similar project soon in Florida's Pensacola Bay.

Bendick says one idea being discussed is a project that would build a chain of new oyster reefs across the Gulf. "They could be kind of oyster sanctuaries that would produce more oysters," he says.

On Florida's Big Bend coast, there's a lot of support for efforts to rebuild oyster reefs. Fishing and harvesting oysters, crabs and clams is not just an industry but a way of life here, one that's long been under pressure.

Jack Payne, who directs natural resource research at the University of Florida, sees another benefit in restoring the reefs; it may help prepare coastal communities for climate change.

"Oyster reefs are wonderful natural barriers to storms, and hurricanes," he says. As sea levels rise, "this is something that we hope we can apply throughout the Florida coastal system."

On the newly built up rocks at Lone Cabbage there are already encouraging signs. Researchers say young oysters are beginning to show up on the reef.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Oyster harvests along the Gulf Coast have been in decline for decades now. Actually, this year, Alabama canceled its season because there were so few oysters. NPR's Greg Allen reports that help may be on the way thanks to millions of dollars in aid after the BP oil spill.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Off Cedar Key on Florida's West Coast, this is some of the most pristine water in the Gulf. It's long supported a thriving seafood industry. Sue Colson, a city commissioner here, says one of the best places to harvest oysters used to be the Lone Cabbage oyster reef. When the tide was really low, she says, there were so many oysters you could walk along the reef and pick them up.

SUE COLSON: We would pull our children out of school on a really, really, really, really blowout tide. And everybody would pick up and get as many as you could in that time that they were exposed.

ALLEN: Those days are long gone on Lone Cabbage Reef. Over the last 30 years, Peter Frederick, a wildlife ecologist from the University of Florida, says oysters that build and make up the reef have died off.

PETER FREDERICK: So once they die and you lose those, then the reef starts degrading and losing elevation. So we've been seeing about three to four inches loss a year of elevation, which is a lot out here.

ALLEN: When the reef is gone, it leaves behind sandbars that young oysters can't attach to. It's a problem seen throughout the Gulf. Scientists say 80 percent of the oyster reefs have been lost in recent decades. There are many reasons - overharvesting, drought, even hurricanes. But Frederick says a major factor is a lack of fresh water. Agriculture and development is claiming much of the water that used to flow down rivers, leaving estuaries like this one too salty.

FREDERICK: The Eastern oyster, which is what we have here, likes an intermediate salinity. It doesn't like full-strength seawater. And at high salinities, it tends to become susceptible to its diseases and parasites. And so they tend to decline fairly rapidly.

ALLEN: Here and throughout the Gulf, a lot of work is going on to help oysters and the communities that depend on them. Frederick has been overseeing efforts to restore Lone Cabbage Reef. It's a nearly $7 million project that has rebuilt the 3 1/2 mile long reef. Standing on a barge alongside it, Frederick says instead of oyster shells, this reef was rebuilt using rock.

FREDERICK: Well, we've had to have heavy equipment like barges and cranes, trucks and breaking equipment at a quarry in order to get all this stuff out here.

ALLEN: It's a project paid for with money from the BP oil spill settlement. Billions of oysters were killed in the spill, and that was just a small part of the extensive damage done to the environment. One hundred and sixty million dollars of the fund is earmarked for oysters.

BOB BENDICK: The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a unique - maybe once in a generation or forever opportunity to reverse the decline of oysters in the Gulf.

ALLEN: Bob Bendick is overseeing several projects to restore oysters in the Gulf for the Nature Conservancy. The group has recently helped rebuild an oyster reef in Texas' Matagorda Bay. It's beginning a similar project soon in Florida's Pensacola Bay. Bendick says one idea being discussed is a project that would build a chain of new oyster reefs across the Gulf.

BENDICK: They could be kind of oyster sanctuaries that would produce more oysters.

ALLEN: On Florida's Big Bend coast, there's a lot of support for efforts to rebuild oyster reefs. Fishing, harvesting oysters, crabs and clams is an industry and a way of life here that's long been under pressure. Jack Payne, who directs natural resource research at the University of Florida, says restoring the reefs may also help prepare us for climate change.

JACK PAYNE: Oyster reefs are wonderful natural barriers to storms and hurricanes that we're going to see more of and sea level rise. So this is something that we hope we can apply throughout the Florida coastal system.

ALLEN: On Lone Cabbage, there are already encouraging signs. Researchers say young oysters are beginning to show up on the reef. Greg Allen, NPR News, Cedar Key, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.