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From The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Oyster reef under way
Vermilion group plans to build site to help marine life, shore

By Richard Burgess, Acadiana bureau

ABBEVILLE, LA — Jan 26, 2021 - The smelly mound of oyster shells rose nearly 10 feet high behind a processing plant in rural Vermilion Parish.

And as a front-end loader took big scoops of the shells and piled them into the back of a dump truck Wednesday, Russell Gaspard talked as if the machine were mining gold.

It was the first load of shells destined for an oyster reef that Gaspard and others plan to build from scratch by the end of the year.

Gaspard hopes the reef, planned for Vermilion Bay, will restore an oyster fishery to the area, improve other marine life and sap the energy from waves that have been eating away at the bay’s shore.

The project has been on the drawing board for about a year.

It received a big boost in November when the nonprofit Gulf of Mexico Foundation awarded a $70,000 grant for the reef work to the Louisiana Wetlands Association, a nonprofit group formed by Gaspard, a retired parish clerk of court, and a circle of friends who meet each morning for coffee at Comeaux’s Cafe across from the courthouse in Abbeville.

The association — now 50 members strong — took shape last year to host a yearly “wetlands” festival to bring attention to conservation issues, but members soon began looking for a bigger mission.

“We had this brand new association, so we needed to do something,” said Wayne Touchet, a building contractor and Vermilion Parish police juror who serves as president of the nonprofit group.

The group had no background in marine science, but Touchet said that most members are fishermen and know from experience that oyster reefs, which attract all other sorts of marine life, make a prime spot to drop a line.

“Enough with the studying — these folks are doing it,” said Ron Dugas, who managed oyster fisheries for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for more than 30 years before retiring. He serves as an informal consultant on the Vermilion Bay project.

Dugas, who maintains an Internet “oyster news” archive, said he is not aware of any other inshore reef project under way along the state’s coast.

He said the practice of returning natural oyster shells to the water bottom to form a reef “is a carryover form the oyster fishermen who have been building reefs like this for more than 100 years. … You are actually bringing back to the sea what belongs there.”

The difficulty, he said, is in pulling together enough oyster shells.

Gaspard said he hopes to gather at least 200 cubic yards of shells, about 20 times the large truck load obtained Wednesday from the Pearl Reef Oysters seafood processing plant near Perry.

Don’s Seafood Hut in Lafayette and Dupuy’s Oyster Shop in Abbeville have also agreed to set aside oyster shells for the reef.

The shells will be brought to the Port of Vermilion, and — when the pile is large enough — loaded onto a barge and carried out to the site of the proposed reef.

The plan is to put down a layer of cracked limestone or concrete and then carry the shells by barge out to the reef site and pile them on top.

If environmental factors cooperate, the structure will naturally attract oyster larvae, which float in the water until finding a suitable reef-like structure to call home, said Earl Melancon, a Nicholls State University marine scientist who specializes in oyster fisheries.

As more oysters latch on, the reef naturally grows larger.

Melancon said that once an oyster reef is established, it becomes a “community structure” teeming with marine life.

Oysters also filter water as they feed, he said, and a large reef structure could dampen the waves that pound away at the receding shoreline.

The proposed site for the reef is near an older reef that was silted decades ago by dirt eroded from the shore, Touchet said.

Gaspard said he hopes that oysters can be harvested from the new reef within two years.

He said no commercial harvest will be allowed initially, but individuals will be allowed to harvest a small amount for personal use, as long as the oysters are shucked on site and the shells dropped back in the water to help maintain the reef.

Gaspard said the reef will be named “Ronney’s Reef,” in honor of the founding president of the Louisiana Wetlands Association, Ronney Mayard.

Mayard, who died in August, was a longtime music educator and arts advocate in Vermilion Parish.

He was also an avid fisherman and wrote the grant proposal that won the money for the project.

“I can think of no better tribute,” said Mayard’s widow, Dixie, who came out Wednesday to watch the gathering of the first load of oyster shells for the reef.

ON THE WEB:
The Gulf of Mexico Foundation — http://www.gulfmex.org
The Louisiana Oyster Task Force — http://www.louisianaoysters.org
Oyster news archive — http://oysterweb.dnr.state.la.us/oyster/_private/rons.htm

Copyright 2006, The Advocate. All Rights Reserved.