Just offshore from San Leon, a company is laying about 10 million pounds of Kentucky limestone on the bay floor in hopes it will become a 21-acre oyster reef.
For days, crews hired by Prestige Oysters, which holds the 21-acre lease, have been using a crane to unload limestone onto smaller boats that spread it around the bay floor. Crews by Wednesday likely will have finished distributing 5,000 tons of the limestone the company bought, said Raz Halili, vice president of Prestige Oysters.
The San Leon-based company hosted a blessing ceremony Monday attended by local elected officials for the oyster cultch — the mass of stones, broken shells and grit of which an oyster bed is formed.
Such ceremonies are typically held to pray for safe and prosperous seasons for vessels.
The next oyster season begins Nov. 1, but the reefs underway won’t have mature oysters for harvest for two to three years.
The project is the first new reef on a private lease in about 40 years, Halili said. Prestige Oysters adds cultch to its existing reefs each year to create more thriving oyster habitats, he said. The company has used oyster shells and limestone to build reefs, Halili said.
“The first option is always shell, but it’s just not a plentiful resource,” Halili said. “But oysters thrive on domestic limestone.”
Prestige Oysters, a distributor and processor, eventually will harvest the oysters to sell for consumption, but the mollusk also has ecological benefits for the bay, said Clifford Hillman, owner of Hillman Shrimp and Oyster Co. Hillman attended the ceremony Monday.
Adult oysters filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, Hillman said. Reefs also create natural barriers for hurricanes and coastal erosion and are prime habitats for recreational fishing, Halili said.
“Oysters are the best barometer of bay health,” Hillman said. “They filter the impurities in the water.”
Researchers at Duke University noted in a 2012 report on oyster restoration the rapid decline of Gulf of Mexico oyster reefs. In the past 130 years, anywhere from 50 percent to 89 percent of oyster reefs in the Gulf have disappeared, which scientists attribute to storms, over-harvesting, dredging and oil spills, among other things, according to the study.
In Galveston Bay, Hurricane Ike in 2008 devastated the local oyster industry. Hillman estimates it would take 90 to 100 years of annual oyster reef building at the rate its occurring now to completely rebuild the stock lost.
Private companies such as Prestige Oysters have been building artificial reefs on their private leases, which increase the number of oysters they can harvest in the bay.
“You have to continue doing what you can to perpetuate the species, resource and industry,” Hillman said.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department also builds public reefs in part paid for by taxes from private lease holders.
A new state law effectively increases that tax by requiring companies to build more on public reefs, he said.
Under the law passed in the 2017 legislative session, private oyster companies are required to return 30 percent of shucked shell to state reefs or the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to perform the service.
Many in the industry opposed the law because the shells are harvested on private oyster leases and could instead go back to those leases instead of public reefs, Hillman said. The new requirement adds a huge cost for commercial operators, Hillman said.