A substantial monetary commitment from the Ed Rachal Foundation has underpinned the Palacios Marine Agriculture Research (PMAR) initiative, and the unprecedented marine science-based push for restoring Texas’ depleted oyster reefs and once thriving population.
There are other large scale and well-known oyster restoration efforts with similar restoration goals, such as the Horn Point Oyster Hatchery and The Billion Oyster project in New York Harbor. PMAR’s conservation efforts extend along the entire Texas coast in the western margin of the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being a large, resilient marine ecosystem, it is still vulnerable to man-made disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and climate-driven stressors like sea level rise and warming seas. These challenges have exposed the limits of resiliency in Texas bays and estuaries.
A healthy oyster population provides many ecosystem services that can contribute to human wellbeing and improve the health and productivity of bays and estuaries. These benefits extend from habitat for sportfish, to sustaining water quality, to countering sea level rise. Healthy oyster reefs and oyster populations interact synergistically with other habitats like seagrass meadows and emergent wetlands by reducing turbidity and erosion. PMAR’s 15 billion oyster project will address many of the issues raised in the academy reports, including projects on large ecosystem scales that can measurably affect entire systems and the people that live around them and depend upon them for their livelihood.
“In order to successfully introduce 15 billion oysters, PMAR’s team will undertake more initial research to explore the development of new reefs and restoration of existing damaged reefs,“ said Gail Sutton, PMAR director of operations, in a press release. “Our initial research project will be in the area of oyster reef restoration and conservation aquaculture.”
Ranches for oysters
Aiding Texas oyster farmers is another PMAR goal hoping to reverse unsustainable trends in the Texas oyster industry through a large-scale hatchery system, with support from a coastwide restoration partnership. Provision of seed oysters for commercial oyster ranchers along the Texas coast is already taking place.
The goal is to create a sustainable commercial aquaculture industry, which can develop seed oysters in hatcheries, grow them in a reliable, protected environment and then harvest when ready — all while maintaining the integrity of the coastal environment.
“A lot of people love to eat oysters, but they often don’t realise what an important role they play in our environment,” said Gail Sutton, retired HRI associate director and co-founder of the institute’s Oyster Recycling Program, Sink Your Shucks. “They’re the water treatment plants of the bays — one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. They’re also a happening place to be underwater, providing habitat and nurseries for species like fish and crabs. When a reef dies or is removed, the water quality goes down and the fish leave. It’s an indicator of environmental degradation.”
Because Texas oyster reefs are the state’s most threatened habitat, their current depleted status also contributes to diminished ecosystem health. The hatchery output will primarily focus on restoration and will facilitate the development of a conservation-orientated aquaculture industry that will aim to contribute to overall restoration.