Tyler Jones / UF / IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones
Before Cedar Key on Florida's west coast, the water is one of the most pristine on the Gulf. The estuary there has long supported a thriving seafood industry.
According to Sue Colson, a commissioner in Cedar Key, one of the best places to harvest oysters was the Lone Cabbage Oyster Reef, about a mile off the coast. When the tide was really low, she says there were so many oysters that she and her husband could walk along the reef and pick them up.
"We would flood our kids with a really, really, really, really blow from school," she says. "And everyone would pick up and get as many as they can during this time when he's out."
These times are long past the Lone Cabbage Reef. For the past thirty years, Peter Frederick, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida, believes oysters, the mollusks that build and rebuild the reef, have died.
"Once they die, you lose them," says Frederick, "the reef is starting to break down and is losing altitude, we've lost about three to four inches a year."
When the reef has disappeared, it leaves sandbars where young oysters can not join.  Decades of Decline
It's not a good time for oysters across the Gulf Coast. Scientists say that 80% of the Gulf's oyster reefs have been lost in recent decades. And the crops have gone down.
Over time, Texas reduced production by half. A few years ago, Florida's Apalachicola Bay, long the heart of the state's oyster industry, was declared a fisheries disaster. This year, Alabama has cut its season off completely because there were so few oysters.
There are many reasons: over-harvesting, drought and even hurricanes. But the ecologist Frederick says one important factor is the lack of fresh water. Agriculture and development take up much of the water that used to flow down rivers, making the estuaries too salty.
"The eastern oyster," he says, "does not like full seawater, and at high salt levels tends to be susceptible to its diseases and parasites, and therefore they tend to decrease quite rapidly."
Greg Allen / NPR
Here and everywhere in the Gulf, much work is done on oysters and their dependent communities.
Frederick has overseen efforts to restore the Lone Cabbage Reef. It's a nearly $ 7 million project that has rebuilt the three and a half miles long reef. Frederick, who was standing next to him on a barge, said instead of oyster shells this reef was rebuilt with the help of rock.
"We had to have heavy equipment," he says, "as barges and cranes, trucks and crushing equipment" transport the stone from a quarry.
It's a project paid for with money from the BP oil spill settlement.
Opportunity to be once in a generation
Billions of oysters were killed in the flood, and that was only a small part of the extensive environmental damage. $ 160 million of the fund is for oysters.
Bob Bendick oversees several oyster restoration projects in the Gulf Gulf for the reserve. He calls the oil accident fund "a unique, maybe once in a generation or forever, a way to reverse the decline of oysters in the Gulf."
Recently, the Nature Conservancy helped rebuild an oyster reef at Matagorda Bay in Texas. Soon a similar project will start in Pensacola Bay, Florida.
Bendick says one of the ideas being discussed is a project that would build a chain of new oyster reefs across the Gulf. "It could be a kind of oyster reserve that would produce more oysters," he says.
Florida's Big Bend Coast has plenty of support for rebuilding oyster reefs. Fishing and harvesting oysters, crabs and clams is not just an industry but a way of life that has been under pressure for a long time.
Jack Payne, who directs research on natural resources at the University of Florida, sees another benefit in restoring the fishing reefs It could help coastal communities prepare for climate change.
"Oyster reefs are wonderful natural barriers to storms and cyclones," he says. As the sea level rises, "we hope to be able to use it throughout the Florida coastal area."
There are encouraging signs on the newly built rocks on the Lone Cabbage. Researchers say that young oysters appear on the reef.