Research teams work to re-establish Gulf reefs

Pine Belt

The University of Southern Mississippi graduate students and research technicians hold an adult Gulf Sturgeon captured in the Pascagoula River. Pictured from left: Elizabeth Greenheck, Alfonso Cohuo, Austin Draper, Kasea Price, and Kati Wright. (Photo credit: Michael Andres, The University of Southern Mississippi)

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (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 collaboration to create oyster reef habitat in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The project finds methods for optimizing oyster habitat restoration in the area which would ultimately lead to oyster population recovery and enhancement of ecosystem services in coastal waters. It also evaluates 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 that offer favorable environmental conditions for oysters within the footprint of Gulf sturgeon habitat.

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

Currently, all of Mississippi’s waters within the Mississippi Sound are federally designated critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon.

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

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