University wins 3-year collaboration with U.S. Army to research oyster restoration and help revitalize region’s coastal economy

Back in August of last year, we reported on the federal grant of $7.62 million for the construction of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Oyster Hatchery and Research Center, located at USM’s Gulf Coast Research Lab at Cedar Point in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Now, on January 15, 2021, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) has announced a three-year research collaboration with USM to create oyster reef habitat in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The primary objectives of the project are to investigate methods for optimizing oyster habitat restoration in the area ― which would ultimately lead to oyster population recovery — and enhancement of ecosystem services in coastal waters; a secondary objective is to evaluate whether the oyster reefs have any impacts on the use of critical habitat by Gulf sturgeon, a federally protected species.

A restored oyster population is crucial to the ecology and the revitalized economy of the region.

Dr. Todd Slack, an ERDC-EL fisheries biologist who will be investigating Gulf sturgeon, thinks the project will deliver other benefits. “The hope is that increased productivity associated with the creation of the new reefs will improve nearby benthic invertebrate productivity, which will positively benefit Gulf sturgeon,” he said.

The reefs also might eventually create recreational opportunities for people, by providing essential fish habitat, a critical component for improving fisheries resources. We anticipate trout, sheepshead, drum and crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp will congregate and eat around the reefs, and that means more habitat for these species ― and the species that feed on them — as well,” he added.

The team is currently evaluating potential sites off the coast of Mississippi for the reef placement. “Some sites would likely have better data for sturgeon research,” said Dr. Safra Altman, a research ecologist with ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory (EL) and ERDC’s technical lead for the project. “We intend to build the 3D oyster structures on two 50-acre leases, with each lease having eight one-acre reef plots.

The USM team is excited about this opportunity to partner with ERDC on this unique research project, and we thank the agency for supporting this endeavor,” said Dr. Read Hendon, director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and USM project lead.

For this collaborative effort, USM will have nine principal scientists at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and Stennis Space Center ― in addition to multiple graduate students and research staff — covering research on oyster reef ecology, Gulf sturgeon monitoring, benthic mapping and circulation modeling. Those components, while diverse in discipline, will be coordinated within the USM-ERDC team to provide a comprehensive analysis of target metrics relating to oyster restoration and Gulf sturgeon habitat use. Our ultimate goal is to inform both restoration and management strategies so that we, as a coastal community, are able to more effectively promote sustainable and productive use of our natural resources,” he continued.

We are very excited about the opportunity to partner with USM on this project,” Altman concluded. “We all bring our expertise to bear. We know at ERDC we do not do anything alone, and we have many partners in other organizations — those in other federal agencies; local, regional, state leaders and contractors; and academia. I think the project will provide many ecosystem services, and we want to quantify them in addition to investigating how to maximize the return on investment in oyster habitat restoration.

The project will be funded through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Ecosystem Management and Restoration Research Program.

Photo via Adobe Stock.

See University of Southern Mississippi website.

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