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From The Daily Advertiser - Lafayette, Louisiana

Coastal project aims to bring oysters
back to Prien Point

By Jason Brown

ABBEVILLE, LA - January 8, 2021 - An oyster reef planned in Vermilion Bay is expected to draw marine life, increase recreational fishing, restore coastline, build marshes and, hopefully, serve as an eventual buffer zone from potential hurricanes to a badly beaten Vermilion Parish.

The Louisiana Wetlands Association was recently awarded a $69,000 grant to construct a 600-foot oyster reef in Vermilion Bay in an area known as Prien Point, located about a mile south of North Lake. The association is a newly formed group of Vermilion Parish businessmen and public officials.

When the reef is completed, which is expected within the year, it will return oysters to an area they once thrived in more than 20 years ago when it was not uncommon to see commercial oyster harvesting in the area. The reef also will help to restore shoreline by trapping sediment brought in by waves. During hurricane season, the reef could serve as a buffer zone for tidal surges, helping to slow waves down before they crash onto the shore.

"There's nobody else out there doing this," Wayne Touchet, Louisiana Wetlands Association president, said of the Vermilion Bay-based project.

Martin Bourgeois, a marine fisheries biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said any structure, be it wetlands or reefs, is critical in buffering coastal communities from hurricanes. The reefs also become an ecological goldmine by drawing in marine life in addition to purifying the water.

Part of the grant required the group to match the funds with in-kind monies. If the project is a success, the group hopes to expand the reef over time to encompass a 3,000-foot space, adding more protection and more benefits to a parish in need of any help it can get.

Russell Gaspard, secretary of the group, said the first grant installment of about $20,000 is expected any day now from the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, which awarded the grant to the group.

When they have the money in hand, Gaspard said the group will lease a trailer and begin hauling and stockpiling the material needed for the reef - such as concrete rip rap, oyster shells and limestone -at the Abbeville Harbor and Terminal, located in Intracoastal City. The business donated a lease to the group for the area where the reef will be constructed, Gaspard said.

The reef will not be for commercial use but is expected to be open to the public by permit. Gaspard said commercial harvesters are notorious for failing to return the shells back to the reef, which are needed to keep the oyster reef alive.

"If you want a pound of oysters, you can go out and get them," Gaspard said. "You open it, shuck it right there and then drop it back in."

Earl Melancon, a biology professor at Nicholls State University who has spent more than 20 years studying oysters, is especially interested in that component of the Vermilion Bay project. Melancon said this will help the oysters to once more become a permanent fixture in an area once known for its oyster population.

"I think what they are trying to do in Vermilion Bay is great," he said.

Jody Hebert, owner of Dupuy's Oyster Shop in Abbeville, agreed. Hebert said his business was founded because of oysters in the Vermilion Bay.

Back in 1869, the business's founder, Joseph Dupuy, harvested oysters out of the bay and then brought them back to Abbeville where he shucked them and sold them to an eager clientele.

"That's where this place originated," he said.

Under ideal circumstances, Melancon said the reef can expect 25 to 30 oysters per square meter but added that in some cases, there may be as many as 200 oysters per square meter. In other words, the reef is "looking at a significant population of oysters."

Melancon described oysters as a "biological attractant," a species that draws all types of marine life to the area.

"It is the most efficient community developer in North America," he said.

Oysters also serve as water purifiers. Melancon said a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day and in some cases even up to 100 gallons. During the process, they produce waste that draws worms and crabs to feed, which in turn attracts fish, too.

"Ask any fisherman where they like to fish and they're going to say an oyster reef," he said. 

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