While Gulf Coast communities in Louisiana and Mississippi are scrambling to protect the wetlands and fisheries in the wake of the horrific BP oil spill, about 180 Galveston fishermen are working together to restore some 2,000 acres of oyster reefs damaged by Hurricane Ike.

More than half the bays reefs, about 8,000 acres, were smothered by sediment deposits when Hurricane Ike made landfall in September, 2008.

Fishermen are being hired to use their boats and fishing gear to pull dead shell out of the sediment, thereby providing a surface for oyster larvae to attach and grow. Re-exposing the buried shell will provide the hard substrate oyster larvae require. It will take 18 to 24 months for newly-settled oysters to reach a legal size of three inches.

Dredging near Jamaica Beach has begun to help restore much of the damaged wetlands around Galveston Island.

“It’s an effort to revitalize parts of Galveston Bay, one of the world’s productive seafood hatcheries and nurseries,” said Frank Bowser a longtime member of the Friends of Galveston Island State Park. “Two dredges now work near Jamaica Beach, one off Jubilee Cove to the west and one off Carancahua (Karankawa) Cove in Galveston Island State Park to the east.”

Besides the valuable commercial fishery a healthy oyster population supports, restoring oyster reefs to Galveston Bay is critical to the overall health of the ecosystem. Oysters feed by filtering tiny plants known as phytoplankton from the water. This filter feeding also removes silt and contaminants from the water, making oysters nature’s bio-filters.

Oyster reefs also provide habitat for numerous bottom dwelling fish and invertebrates that are in turn food for larger game fish. Scientists refer to these various functions of oyster reefs, including providing product for the commercial fishing industry, as “ecosystem services.”

“These shallow coves, like all Galveston Bay bayous and coves, once were ringed with marshes and filled with marsh-grass-covered mounds, interspersed with tidal pools and rambling interconnecting waterways,” Bower said.

According to Bower, the shallow waters allowed sunlight to promote a sea grass bed covering cove bottoms and ringing shorelines. Brackish water, marsh grasses and sea grass provided excellent cover for hatching a broad variety of marine creatures and nourishment for growing, fledgling seafood until it was mature enough to migrate into the Gulf of Mexico.

Funding for the project comes from a federal fisheries disaster grant to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department through the National Marine Fisheries Service. This project will provide benefits to the ecosystem and to both the recreational and commercial fisheries in Galveston Bay.