Stupefied by the abundance of marine life encountered along the Gulf Coast, early European explorers described the region as one in which oysters grew on trees.
Actually, there was a faint ring of truth to this. Oysters actually grew on mangrove tree roots in the tidal zone as well as "the margins of the seemingly limitless marshes that stretched into the horizon, perched between sea and sky," wrote Rowan Jacobsen, author of "The Living Short: Rediscovering a Lost World," and Michael Beck, senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy, in a July 24 New York Times op-ed.
Small wonder why marine experts have often described the region as the fertile crescent of seafood, which, as Jacobsen and Beck contend, is precisely the point: following one of two of the worst environmental calamities on record — Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill —now is the time to marshal federal and state efforts aimed at restoring the Gulf Coast's ecosystems to their past grandeur.
The region's imperiled oyster reefs should be a major focus of those efforts, they maintain:
"Paradoxically, before the oil spill, scientists had come to a consensus that the only place on earth offering a realistic opportunity for oyster reef restoration on a scale that could support a truly sustainable fishery was the Gulf of Mexico," they wrote. "But there never has been the political will for such a project.
"Now that the spill has brought such attention to the Gulf Coast, perhaps we can agree to the kind of national response that has been needed for so long,"
One of the most critical priorities remains degraded oyster reefs:
…we need to think of them as an investment: rebuild the natural capital and harvest only the yearly interest, leaving the principle untouched. Crews will be needed to load and haul oyster shells and to manufacture reef blocks that create the base of new reefs. Many of these workers, and the small-business owners who will support the effort, would be the same people whose jobs have been destroyed by the spill.
The reefs provide habitat for some 300 vertebrate and invertebrate species, according to P.J. Waters, a specialist with the Auburn University Marine Research and Extension Center in Mobile.
"Worldwide, oyster reefs have degraded," Water says. "The Gulf reefs are better off than some in other regions of the world, but restoration efforts are important to keep them that way."
Oysters themselves are critically important not only as one of the principal — and lucrative — sources of Gulf Coast seafood but also for the ecological benefits they confer.
"Oysters also filter water in the course of their normal feeding," Water says. "By cleaning up the algae in the water, they're also cleaning up the water column."
For his part, Waters is involved in a unique form of oyster restoration that uses live oysters. The Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program, which he helps coordinate through the Marine Center's Shellfish Laboratory, raise spat from June until November. Then these oysters, which have grown roughly two to three inches in size, are introduced throughout the region to oyster reefs that have degraded over time.
He says this live oyster approach to reef restoration offers several advantages over other methods.
"By allowing them to grow by as much as two inches before their introduction, they're less subject to predators," Waters says. "By giving them that leg up through five months of growth, they're better equipped for survival and spawning through the next spring."
Since the program's inception in 2001, some 400,000 oysters have been planted in reefs — by Waters own admission, only a tiny portion of the vast populations of oysters that inhabit Gulf Coast waters.
Even so, the cumulative effects of their annual introductions — not to mention, their offspring —to degraded reefs could have tremendous implications both for the environmental and economic future of the Gulf Coast, he says.
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