Closing the Loop: Recycling Shells and Rebuilding Oyster Reefs for Resilience and Recovery

Oysters are economically and ecologically important coastal natural resources in Texas. Oyster reefs increase resilience of coastal environments and economies by buffering storm surges, improving water quality, supplying critical habitat, providing fresh seafood, and supporting tourism and recreation. However, over the past two decades, Texas oyster populations have experienced critical declines. Restoration has emerged as an important tool for enhancing coastal natural resources, including oysters and the complex habitat they create when free-swimming oyster larvae attach to and grow upon the shells of older generations. In areas where the reef has been degraded, restoration involves replacing lost structure with shells or other hard substrates.

The Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies has successfully restored and monitored development of over 25 acres of oyster reef in Coastal Bend bays. Oyster shell is the preferred substrate for oyster reef restoration, but it is in limited supply. With support from CMP, HRI has recycled over 1.75 million pounds of oyster shell from seafood restaurants, festivals, and wholesale partners in greater Coastal Bend, San Antonio, and Austin. We request 306A funds to close the loop, directly coupling shell recycling with reef restoration to maxim ize the return on CMP investments. We propose to accomplish the following tasks:

  1. Recycle oyster shells. We will reclaim at least 225,000 lbs of shucked oyster shell from our seafood industry partners over the project period. Shells will be picked up on a customized (per partner need) schedule and stockpiled at the Port of Corpus Christi.
  2. Reef restoration and monitoring. We will use recycled oyster shells to restore 4.5 acres of oyster reef complex in ~1.5 m water depth in St. Charles Bay, adjacent to Goose Island State Park, expanding an area of previously restored reef (2017, 2020) to a total of 18 acres. St. Charles Bay is closed to commercial harvest to protect existing oyster populations. The restored reef will create essential habitat, provide protection to an eroding marsh shoreline, and facilitate natural reef recovery by increasing larval oyster supply.
  3. Participatory community engagement. We will host biannual community events for coastal residents and visitors to participate in hands-on reef restoration at Goose Island State Park (GISP). Volunteers will fill biodegradable mesh bags with recycled shells and will place them in the intertidal zone to expedite reef regeneration along the shoreline adjacent to the large-scale restoration site. HRI has partnered with GISP staff for the past decade to engage over 2,000 visitors in habitat restoration activities.