Research teams work to restore Gulf reefs

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HATTIESBURG, Mississippi (WHLT) – The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), the University of Kentucky, and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources ( MDMR) are working on a three-year collaborative project to create an oyster reef habitat in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The project is finding methods to optimize oyster habitat restoration in the region, which would ultimately lead to oyster population recovery and improved ecosystem services in coastal waters. It also assesses whether the creation of oyster reefs as part of coastal restoration activities has any impacts on the use of critical habitat by Gulf sturgeon, a federally protected species.

In early 2021, the research team began evaluating potential reef sites off the coast of Mississippi. They were looking for areas with favorable environmental conditions for oysters within the Gulf sturgeon habitat footprint.

“The project is to create oyster structures on two sites. Each site will have two 50-acre leases, with each lease having eight one-acre reef plots,” said Dr. Safra Altman, research ecologist at ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory and ERDC’s project technical lead. “We believe we have now identified two sites that will allow us to better meet the two objectives of the project.”

Currently, all Mississippi waters in the Mississippi Strait are federally designated critical habitat for the Gulf Sturgeon.

The project aims to determine positive and negative impacts, if any, on Gulf sturgeon critical habitat by quantifying changes in use through acoustic telemetry tagging studies, sediment characteristics and density of Gulf sturgeon prey in response to the creation of oyster reefs. This data will allow resource managers to make informed decisions on how best to achieve restoration while simultaneously conserving Gulf sturgeon.

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