Already-Vanishing Oyster Reefs Under Threat from Oil Spill (Video)


A Japanese film crew reports on the threatened conservation effort to restore oyster habitats. Photo by Brian Merchant

Up until a couple weeks ago, the Nature Conservancy was in the midst of an important conservation project -- building up vanishing oyster reefs, as well as restoring eroding coastlines in the Gulf of Mexico. The innovative project, which makes use of three different methods to create revitalize disappearing oyster reefs, has been delayed as a result of the oil spill. And unfortunately, it illustrates that livelihoods and existing wildlife aren't all that stand to be lost from the disaster -- much-needed conservation efforts stand to suffer as well. Here's what could happen.Oyster reefs are the world's most impacted marine habitat, and among the most endangered -- 85% of oyster reefs have been wiped out worldwide. So there's an acute need to protect and rejuvenate those that still exist. The Gulf of Mexico is home to the most pristine oyster reefs left in the world.

Here's project manager Jeff DeQuattro explaining how their project would do that:

They hope to accomplish this by setting up three different kinds of artificial reef off the coast of islands and bays -- round cement blocks called reef balls, bags of oyster shells piled on top of one another (bagged oysters), and rebar containers filled with oyster shells placed in a sawtooth formation. Each would attract oysters, which would grow on the structures, and provide much-needed fish habitats. The project is a federally funded stimulus project, and it created a number of jobs for locals. It's barely a year old, and had recently been in the deployment stage when the gulf spill occurred.

If the oil does indeed come ashore in the area -- which is unfortunately likely, it could prove a major setback to the attempt to restore the oyster reefs. Here's Jeff again:

Video continued:

The Nature Conservancy took us out to see the project in progress, where some of the structures have already been deployed. Here's what they look like in action (you can see the red boom, which is intended to act as a oil barrier, in the background):



The oil thankfully hasn't been spotted approaching the endangered oyster reefs yet, but tar balls did wash up on a nearby island. But if this conservation effort -- and others like it being carried out around the Gulf -- has to be delayed or restarted, the oyster reefs will be even more threatened than before.

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