Restore Coastal Alabama Project Builds Quarter Mile of Oyster Reef in Mobile [w/Video]

“When I donated to NWF I was thinking about the oiled animals and Louisiana. I didn’t realize my money would go to help my own backyard.”

01-26-2011 // Craig Guillot

More than 500 volunteers showed up to Helen Wood Park in Mobile on January 22-23, 2011 to help build a quarter mile of oyster reef. The effort was part of 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama, a project aiming to build 100 miles of oyster reef and plant over 1,000 acres of marshland along the state’s coast. As oil disaster restoration and recovery funds begin to trickle down to local governments, 100-1000 may serve as a model for what can be done with public/private partnerships and community participation.

Volunteers came from just around the corner to as far away as California to brave a cold morning and build a reef with more than 16,000 bags of oyster shells. Working throughout the weekend, they created the first of a series of restoration projects on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. The work is the result of a collaboration of more than 20 public and private partners including National Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy and NOAA. The project hopes to raise $80 million in the next five years to fund the full 100 miles of reef.

Read about four of the volunteers >>

“This is what restoration at a large scale looks like. It’s very rare to have this type of [volunteer] involvement and we can actually attribute that to the oil spill,” said project organizer Jeff DeQuattro, Marine Program Director with the Nature Conservancy.

Helping Reverse Erosion in Mobile Bay

An inlet of the Gulf of Mexico fed by the Mobile and Tensaw Rivers, Mobile Bay has long suffered erosion and land loss. Some scientists estimate that the bay looses up to 20 acres of marsh and land per year due to storms, boat wakes, poor water quality, dredging and development. During the 1960s and 1970s, almost all of the Bay’s vertical oyster reefs were mined and used as the road bed of I-10 between Mobile and New Orleans. DeQuattro said that parts of Mobile Bay lose 10-14 feet of shoreline per year. Recent hurricanes and the Gulf oil disaster have only made things worse.

100-1000 is determined to replace and repair at least a part of what has been taken from Mobile Bay over the past few decades. While it can take a little labor and money, oyster reef construction is fairly simple. First a layer of burlap sacks filled with oyster shells is placed on the floor as a base. Then, smaller sacks of oyster shells are stacked over it up to 3 layers high. After only a few weeks, the burlap sacks will rot away. Sun and saltwater will then break down the plastic netting and oysters will eventually “cement” everything in. That last stage could take 5-10 years, DeQuattro said, but it doesn’t take long for fish, birds, crabs and other critters to start using the reef as a hiding spot and breeding ground.

I picked up a shell on a reef that was installed in April 2010 and we had 12 baby oysters on a single shell. The reefs themselves become excellent habitat,” he said.

One immediate impact of the reef is its use as a breakwater. As soon as it is constructed it will instantly start dampening wave energy when the tide comes in. That significantly reduces the impact on the shoreline, which allows marsh grass to flourish and grow.

“They’re good shoreline protectors which help knock down wave energy and create marsh and sea grass habitat near the banks,” DeQuattro said.

Donations, Volunteers Key to the Project's Success

While 100-1000 would not have been possible without donations, including a $50,000 investment from NWF, it also depended heavily on volunteers. John Hankinson, director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, said the project is a great example of what can be done with investments and volunteer labor. The recently-formed task force is currently working on an implementation strategy for President Obama on what key things need to be done in the region. They’ll also be working to help find resources, streamline permitting and develop investments.

Oyster reef
“BP owes money for the damage that has been done here and we’re going to try to direct that money into the best projects that can serve all the communities along the Gulf Coast,” said Hankinson.

The involvement of hundreds of volunteers also brings “ownership” to the public, said Alabama Wildlife Federation Executive Director Tim Gothard.

Volunteer Pam Watterson of Mobile was excited to see that the money she donated to the Larry King telethon in June 2010 went directly to a project in her own backyard.

When I donated to NWF I was thinking about the oiled animals and Louisiana. I didn’t realize my money would go to help my own backyard,” she said.

DeQuattro said that 100-1000 is an environmental project with economic impacts. The project hired nine members of the local Southeast Asian fishing community to bag the oyster shells. As the reef grows it will further enhance fishing and oystering in the basin which can bolster jobs that trickle throughout the economy. DeQuattro said studies have shown that for every million dollars put into a project like this, it can eventually result in the creation of 20 jobs.

“By restoring the environment we are going to restore people’s livelihoods. The oil spill put the Gulf Coast on the map, it made the residents sit up in their chairs and recognize they might be taking it for granted. They’re out here because they know projects like this will help their livelihood,” said DeQuattro.

Photos from the Restoration Event

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