CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Dr. Jennifer Pollack, Assistant Professor of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and Gail Sutton, Chief Operating Officer of the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies, are striving to continue the restoration of oyster reefs and marine ecosystems one shell at a time.
With the support of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, local businesses and the Coastal Bend community, Pollack and Sutton have coordinated more than 1,700 volunteers and restored more than 14 acres of reef since 2009 through the “Sink Your Shucks” program. The oyster collection, operated out of HRI, recently celebrated its one-millionth pound of oyster shell collected for reef restoration. Now, thanks to financial assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administered by the Texas General Land Office, they plan to expand that success through their project “Shell Bank: Oyster Shell Recycling, Citizen Engagement, Hands-On Learning, & Reef Characterization.”
“We are very excited to continue our partnership with the Texas General Land Office’s Coastal Management Program to reclaim shucked oyster shells, engage students and the community in environmental stewardship, and restore vital oyster reef habitat in the state,” Pollack said.
In January 2017, the Texas General Land Office’s Coastal Management Program approved Pollack and Sutton for a NOAA grant of nearly $100,000 for their Shell Bank project. The project aims to continue the success of the “Sink Your Shucks” campaign by collecting used oyster shells from local restaurants and seafood wholesalers, and traveling to food festivals in San Antonio and Austin to collect shell and educate the public about recycling and the oyster’s role in the ecosystem. The project will also engage 150 at-risk students in restoration activities that provide hands-on learning and to assist teachers in bridging the gap between classroom and field-based learning.
“Our volunteers get to see firsthand how recycling works. So many times when you recycle the traditional way you never know what comes of it. But with oyster recycling people can have a hand in placing the shell on the reefs themselves, and see the reef grow,” Sutton said. “This program works because it’s simple. You eat the oyster, bag the shell, put it back in the water, and repeat.”
As co-founders of “Sink your Shucks,” the first oyster recycling program in Texas, Pollack and Sutton hope their newest project will also establish a reliable method to evaluate reef characterization through the use of two combined methods: dredges and samples taken by divers.
“Essentially, we want to understand how healthy the oyster reefs are across the Texas coast,” said Pollack. “In order to do this, we need to understand oyster density. Historically oysters have been sampled with a dredge, which doesn’t collect them in a quantitative way. As part of this project, we will collect samples using divers and can compare these data with historical dredge samples to get a clearer understanding of how many oysters are out there at reefs across Texas. This information will help us better manage oyster populations, which make up one of the largest commercial fisheries in Texas.”
The Oyster Recycling program originally began as Sutton’s master’s thesis work at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and has since grown into a highly successful science collaboration between HRI, the University and the community. With a research focus on the conservation and restoration ecology of marine and estuarine organisms and habitats, Pollack has long dedicated her time at the Island University to creating a legacy of change and protection of economically important species and the ocean that surrounds them.
“We are extremely lucky to work at the Island University, where the bay is our front yard. The Corpus Christi community has been extremely supportive of programs that protect the beauty and benefits of our coastal environment. I can’t think of a better place for conservation, research, and hands-on learning,” said Pollack.
To learn more about some of Pollack’s current and ongoing research projects visit, http://pollacklab.tamucc.edu/research/. To learn more about the Oyster Recycling program and volunteer opportunities, visit OysterRecycling.org or follow Oyster Recycling on Facebook.