Calcasieu Lake project will provide marine habitat for oysters

Coastal erosion and manmade changes to Calcasieu Lake have endangered oysters and other marine life by altering their natural habitats over the past century, and coastal conservation groups are working together to revitalize the area.

The latest effort to restore the lake’s fisheries and oyster population is underway in the eastern part of Calcasieu Lake, where conservationists are using recycled concrete pilings to build an artificial reef.

The reef is a project of the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department and the Coastal Conservation Association, a national nonprofit that has built 20 reefs in Louisiana over the past two decades, according to CCA habitat committee chairman John Walter.

Walter said the new reef is the third artificial reef the CCA has built in Calcasieu Lake, the first two being in 2007 and 2012. It’s named “Big Jack’s Reef” in honor of Jack Lawton Sr., who was instrumental in founding a CCA chapter in Louisiana.

Work began on the reef Saturday and is expected to last another 10 days, Walter said. He said workers have almost completed the first phase of the project: placing concrete pilings donated by Lotte Chemical in parallel rows along the lake bottom. The next phase is adding crushed concrete.

He said the pilings will provide oysters and bait fish with shelter from predators while creating a strong current on each end for feeding.

“It’s just mimicking what happened in nature millenniums ago when the big oyster reefs were here that are now depleted,” Walter said. “We’re replacing what’s being lost in nature with these manmade, more durable materials that can stand the test of time.”

The reef will cover about six acres of the permitted site, he said, providing shelter to bait fish, crustaceans, coral and oysters.

“It’s going to be a hard bottom habitat that the marine organisms can attach to, which will in turn harbor bait fish, which will in turn attract our sport fish,” Walter said.

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He said part of the reason the homes of many plants and animals were destroyed is widespread erosion along the Gulf Coast.

“As we lose our natural barriers to the Gulf, the salinity increases, and oysters have a very narrow range that they can survive in, more of a brackish water than a full salty water like the Gulf, so all those factors have made those oyster reefs decline in a lot of areas, not just in Calcasieu Lake,” Walter said.

Craig Gothreaux, artificial reef program manager at the state wildlife department, said the lost habitat is also a result of human intervention. When the Calcasieu Ship Channel was dredged in the 1920s, he said, saltwater was able to travel farther north than ever before.

“Some of the historic productive beds that were right at where the ship channel is, that’s where we’re not seeing as much oyster growth,” Gothreaux said.  

Although harvesting oysters is prohibited because Big Jack’s Reef is a habitat reef, he said, the reef is expected to serve as a breeding ground that will help replenish the lake over time.

He said juvenile oysters will drift along the current, feeling with their foot for a hard bottom as they go. They can also pick up on “reef sounds,” he said, and find their way to the artificial reef alongside a host of other marine creatures, such as juvenile fish, crabs, shrimp, algae and barnacles. He said predatory fish that will come to the reef for food include trout, red fish, flounder and sheepshead.

Gothreaux said the site was chosen because it has a thinner layer of soft mud than other areas; there were few oysters around; and, at 8 feet, it’s deep relative to the rest of the lake. The reef can only be 2 feet high to maintain a clearance of 6 feet for the ships.

He noted that other organizations, like the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, are working on long-term salinity control measures and coastal erosion prevention. The reef program, however, is focused solely on restoring fisheries and oyster habitats.

The state wildlife department split the $350,000 cost with CCA. Walter said a large portion of funds comes from industries throughout the state.

“Part of the story is the collaboration we have between industry, volunteers at the CCA, and government,” Walter said. He said the CCA plans to continue to open reefs throughout the state as more money becomes available.

“Not only are we creating a habitat for the fisheries, but also a destination for the fisherman.”

– John Walter

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Concrete pilings are dropped into Calcasieu Lake as part of an artificial reef project to provide oysters and bait fish with shelter from predators while creating a strong current on each end of the reef for feeding.

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