St. Bernard gets oyster reef to help protect shoreline

A partnership among a business, the state and a nonprofit conservation organization is helping protect a part of St. Bernard Parish’s shoreline through the construction of an oyster reef.

Using an engineered system of interlocking circles made of marine-grade cement, the artificial reef is meant to serve as a base for young oysters to land and start building their shells. The goal is for the structure to be built upon by generations of oysters, creating — over time — more natural reefs.

Not only can these reefs help protect shorelines from eroding because of wave energy, but they also can serve as habitat for numerous other types of marine life.

The project is funded through a $400,000 grant from the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and $160,000 from Chevron awarded to the Nature Conservancy.

“This project is a wonderful example of how public and private organizations can work together,” said Amy Smith-Kyle, coastal conservation project manager with the Nature Conservancy.

Construction on the reef had a rocky start last week, with thunderstorms and windy conditions occurring along the coast. However, construction of the interlocking OysterBreak system is expected to be completed this week, said Tyler Ortego, president of ORA Estuaries and one of the system’s designers.

The project is a continuation of other oyster reef projects the Nature Conservancy has built along the coast, including in St. Bernard Parish, Grand Isle and Vermilion Bay.

When this latest project is completed, Smith-Kyle said, the Nature Conservancy will have helped build about 4.5 miles of reef in the state.

As part of the project, the conservancy has contracted with LSU Agricultural Center scientists to monitor the reefs after construction. The researchers are looking at how effective the reefs are at reducing shoreline erosion, how well oysters are growing, mortality rates and whether the reefs provide habitat for other marine organisms.

“We have to monitor. Otherwise, we’ve only done half of the project,” said Seth Blitch, coastal program director with the Nature Conservancy.

So far, reefs completed in 2011 and 2012 not only have held up well but have recruited oysters and reduced shoreline erosion, he said.

“We still have erosion behind our projects, but it is slower,” Blitch said.

In addition to the OysterBreak system, some of the oyster reefs were built using a system developed by Baton Rouge-based Coastal Environments Inc.

After a few years of working on reef-creation projects, Blitch said, they’ve discovered new information that will help improve projects, including how far away from the shoreline to place the oyster reef base structure.

In Grand Isle, Blitch said, the structures were placed farther away from the shoreline because it was anticipated that the area behind the structure would fill in with sediment and start growing plants.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said.

As a result, in St. Bernard Parish, the contractor is placing the structures about 10 feet from the shoreline.

Oyster leases nearby will help supply the young oysters that will propagate on the artificial reef, which in turn will help send young oysters back to nearby leases, Blitch said.

More important, Blitch said, the project is a good example of how coastal restoration, fisheries management and habitat enhancement can co-exist.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.