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Published November 12, 2010

Oyster reefs, once so plentiful they blocked shipping traffic, have been in decline due to overharvesting, pollution, and recent oil spill activities, experts say. But scientists are working to restore the reefs using special material called oysterkrete.

© 2010 National Geographic; partially funded by NSF; videography and field producing by Fritz Faerber

RELATED LINKS:

Gulf Oil Spill News, Pictures, and Video

Oyster Herpes: Latest Symptom of Global Warming?

UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT:

AS SCIENTISTS, BUSINESSES AND RESIDENTS SEEK TO REMEDY THE NEGATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF THE HUGE OIL SPILL IN THE GULF OF MEXICO, IT IS CLEAR THEY MUST ALSO ADDRESS SOME OF THE GULF’S LONGSTANDING PROBLEMS.

EVEN BEFORE THE BP WELL STARTED SPEWING OIL, THE GULF REGION STRUGGLED WITH POOR WATER QUALITY, LOSS OF WETLANDS AND PLUMMETING POPULATIONS OF A VARIETY OF ANIMAL SPECIES. IT TURNS OUT ONE POSSIBLE KEY TO SOLVING SOME OF THESE ISSUES IS AN UNLIKELY LIVING CREATURE: THE OYSTER.

HUNDREDS OF YEARS AGO, REEFS CREATED BY THE SHELLFISH WERE LOCATED THROUGHOUT THE GULF COAST.

SOUNDBITE: Richard Martin, Nature Conservancy

“And there are old records that talk about these reefs being so expansive as to block shipping traffic. Due to changes in water quality, due to overharvesting, we’ve lost about 85% of the oysters throughout the United States about 50% of the oyster reefs are gone in the Gulf of Mexico. "

LARGE OYSTER REEFS BREAK UP WAVES AND SLOW STORM SURGE THAT CAN WASH AWAY MARSH, BEACH AND EVEN HOMES.

THE OYSTERS ALSO FILTER ORGANIC MATERIAL SUCH AS ALGAE FROM THE WATER, WHICH HELPS SEAGRASS BEDS. THEY ALSO PROVIDE HABITAT FOR SMALL FISH AND OTHER CREATURES.

THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS WORKING WITH THE NATIONAL FISH AND WILDLIFE FOUNDATION, LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY AND OTHER PARTNERS TO LEARN HOW BEST TO RESTORE OYSTER BEDS. IN THIS PROJECT IN LOUISIANA’S VERMILION BAY, WORKERS ARE BUILDING 700 FEET OF ARTIFICIAL REEF USING OYSTERBREAK RINGS WHICH ARE MADE OF A MATERIAL CALLED “OYSTERKRETE”.

SOUNDBITE: Michael Turley, Wayfarer Environmental Technologies

“The structure’s been designed with a type of concrete and the ingredient within the concrete which attracts oysters. They have a lot of cavities and holes and impervious areas that they can hide in to be able to mature.”

AFTER JUST A FEW MONTHS, THIS SECTION ALREADY HAS GROWTH.

UPSOUND: folks talking about and pointing out oysters

THE NATURE CONSERVANCY HAS TWO LOUISIANA OYSTER PROJECTS THAT ARE COMPARING THE RINGS AGAINST ANOTHER REEF BUILDING STRUCTURE THAT USES STEEL.

SOUNDBITE: Amy Smith Kline, Nature Conservancy

“This is just a demonstration project. We’re really trying to look at across Louisiana, across the Gulf Coast how different artificial reefs, how effective they are in different habitats.”

IT ISN’T CLEAR YET HOW THE OIL SPILL HAS, AND WILL CONTINUE TO AFFECT THE ALREADY VULNERABLE OYSTERS.

BUT EFFORTS TO KEEP THE OIL AWAY FROM THE WETLANDS MAY HAVE ACTUALLY HAD A NEGATIVE IMPACT.

SOUNDBITE: Richard Martin, Nature Conservancy

PICK UP AT: “A lot of the oysters were killed because of the large amount of fresh water put into the system by opening up our diversions along the Mississippi river in an attempt to flush oil from the marsh and to keep any additional oil from entering the marsh.”

SO, AS GOVERNMENT AND NON-GOVERNMENTAL GROUPS SEEK WAYS TO ADDRESS THE NEGATIVE IMPACTS FROM THE OIL, THEY MAY ALSO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW TO ADDRESS SOME LONGSTANDING PROBLEMS.

SOUNDBITE: Richard Martin, Nature Conservancy

“Coastal restoration is not going to be solved with any one silver bullet. There’s going to be some large scale strategies, freshwater diversion that puts freshwater and sediments back into the marsh. But there are going to be some conservation targets.”

IF THE OYSTERS ARE ABLE TO LATCH ONTO SUITBALE STRUCTURES– ARTIFICIAL OR OTHERWISE – BOTH SCIENTISTS AND OYSTER HARVESTERS HOPE THEY CAN MAKE A COMEBACK AND HELP IMPROVE THE HEALTH OF THE GULF COAST.


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