COPANO BAY, Tex. — The orange buoys placed along the perimeter of an underwater construction site here keep disappearing, leaving behind a rust-stained barge with a massive pile of broken limestone. The barge carried it down the Mississippi River, to be dumped a mile off the Texas coast.
Soon, baby oysters will attach to the rocks’ rough surfaces and start to grow.
The ambitious project aims to restore an oyster reef nearly wiped out by hurricanes, drought and overfishing. When the artificial reef is completed in June, half will be open to harvesting and the other half protected to give the species a long-term chance to rebound.
That dual nature of the effort is unique and could be replicated elsewhere along the nation’s southeastern coast. It offers a rare opportunity for often competing interests — state regulators, conservationists, people whose livelihoods depend on the mollusks and those who like eating them — to all get what they want: more oysters.
“We designed it specifically to try and make the essential point that conservation is about both the protection and the use of resources,” said Laura Huffman, regional director for the Nature Conservancy in Texas, which is leading the project and a second set to begin in Galveston Bay in the winter. If the project is successful, 110 acres of reef will be created.
Only a decade ago, the Nature Conservancy declared that the Gulf of Mexico’s oyster reefs represented “the most significant wild harvests left in the world.” Then disaster struck.
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast. Before a BP well was finally capped months later, more than 4 million barrels of oil had contaminated Gulf Coast waters and beaches. Billions of oysters were killed.
Although little oil reached Texas shores, its oysters were already in serious trouble. Two years earlier, sediment had smothered reefs in Galveston Bay — the source of the vast majority of the state’s harvest — after Hurricane Ike made landfall.
“Overnight, Hurricane Ike came in, and we lost over 50 percent of the oyster habitat in Galveston Bay,” recalled Lance Robinson, coastal fisheries deputy division director at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Little has gone right since then for the species or the $43 million industry it supports here.
From 2010 to 2015, the state experienced an intense drought that caused further damage. As rivers ran low, the salinity of the bays they flow into increased. So did populations of certain bacteria and predators that kill oysters.
The drought was followed by two years of spring flooding, which hit during oysters’ crucial spawning season. Baby oysters, called spat, were swept into the Gulf. Many of those that weren’t ended up dying because they couldn’t survive in water that had too little salt from the deluge of rains.
The final blow was Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Several feet of water was dumped across the Houston area and ultimately gushed into Galveston Bay. Some reefs on the bay’s east side suffered 100 percent mortality, Robinson said.
After years of struggling, a source of relief emerged. A legal settlement related to the Deepwater Horizon spill included $160 million for oyster restoration, $3.5 million of which is being used for the Galveston Bay project. The $5 million Copano Bay project is being funded by a different settlement stemming from the illegal release of chemicals that contaminated bay waters in South Texas.
A strong wind was roiling Copano Bay as several of the project’s engineers and Nature Conservancy workers set out to check on the reef’s progress one morning last month. The boat carrying them to the construction site listed precariously as it neared the barge full of limestone.
Julie Sullivan, the conservancy’s coastal restoration project manager in Texas, stared at the churning water and imagined what she will see and hear once the reef is complete and tiny plankton, worms, young crustaceans and small fish begin to fill its nooks and crannies.
“If you come back out here in two years and you’re looking out on the water, you’ll see all these big fish jumping and all of this activity and little explosions on the water from fish chasing each other, and birds will be here diving,” she said.
Conversation was nearly impossible over the roar of an excavator’s engine. Operator Kelly Hayes steered the machine’s massive arm toward a mountain of limestone and scooped up a bucketful. Then he rotated the machine 180 degrees and used a small computer screen to line up a little black box — representing the position of the arm — with a circle on a grid. Once the square was in the middle of the circle, he dumped the load into the water.
He will repeat the process more than 2,000 times to complete the side of the project intended for harvesting, using rocks small enough to fit through the teeth of the dredges that oyster fishermen rake across reef. The rocks on the protected half are bigger and more varied. In total, 48,000 tons of limestone will be deposited into Copano Bay.
Despite the many setbacks Texas oysters have faced in the past decade, enough adult oysters remain in the bays to naturally repopulate the new reefs. In another restoration project, completed in the Chesapeake Bay in 2015, the existing population was so decimated that scientists in Maryland had to conduct a sort of oyster mating ritual and nurse the spat in a lab until they were big enough to be deposited in the wild.
Texas represents a classic “if you build it, they will come” scenario, says Huffman, and she has the numbers to support that confidence.
In 2013, the Nature Conservancy deployed the same Missouri-mined limestone used in Copano Bay to build a 54-acre sanctuary reef in Matagorda Bay, 100 miles southwest of Houston. Two years later, oysters had attached to 70 percent of the reef’s surface, and their population had grown by more than 550 percent. Sullivan said more than 300 species of flora and fauna were also found.
These projects bring other benefits, too. Each oyster can filter 50 gallons of water daily, removing nitrogen and pollutants. The creatures “are essentially like little water treatment plants,” said Jennifer Pollack, who leads coastal conservation and restoration at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.
Scientists, fishermen, conservationists and policymakers may have different reasons for wanting more oyster reefs, Pollack noted, but they agree on the result. And in recent years, each group has taken steps to protect the oyster population and allow it to thrive.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission shortened the harvest week two years ago, reduced the number of oysters that can be collected daily and increased the penalties for harvesting undersized oysters. These days, repeat offenders can be fined up to $2,000 and face up to 180 days in jail. They also risk losing their fishing license for 30 days — although only one person has so far.
Shellfish dealers are also now required to return oyster shell or rock back into the bays to bolster the reefs.
Raz Halili serves as vice president of Prestige Oyster’s, a longtime family business based just north of Galveston. The oyster harvest, processing and distribution company sends out 50 to 60 fishing boats daily in Texas and Louisiana and returns 100 percent of the oyster shell it processes to the bays, Halili said.
Just like on the artificial reefs the Nature Conservancy is building, baby oysters can attach to the recycled shell and grow. Halili thinks everyone in the industry should be helping to increase the number of oysters in Texas waters.
“We want to make sure we’re putting back what we’re taking out,” he said.