A consortium of environmental and industry stakeholders are making concrete reefs on the Gulf Coast in an attempt to create new oyster habitats. The Lake Athanasio project covers a half a mile of St. Bernard Parish coastline, and seeks to satisfy coastal restoration and commercial interests by giving oysters a sustainable habitat to mature.
Tyler Ortego developed the engineering concept behind the artificial reefs.
More than 700 giant concrete rings will sit off the coast of St. Bernard Parish, near Lake Athanasio. Ortego created the “OysterBreak,” method as a bioengineering student at LSU. He’s now got a patent for this process which he markets globally as part of ORA Estuaries.
The concrete rings are settled by hand into the marsh, and over time become a solid, protective reef where oysters can thrive.
These artificial barriers also provide protection for the Gulf shoreline by helping to slow erosion.
Ortego is not the only person on the Lake Athanasio project with an oyster pedigree. Seth Blitch says he has a reputation too. “I spend so much time talking about oysters, people say, 'Oh, you're the oyster guy.'” As the Coastal Program Director for the Nature Conservancy in Louisiana, Blitch is also, more generally speaking, a healthy ecosystems guy. He’s focusing on oysters because they happen to be a harbinger for coastal health.
“They're sort of the canary," he says. Oysters are natural water filters, and that when they are struggling — an estimated 85% of the world’s oyster habitats have disappeared — water quality tends to drop.
Blitch says the impact of oysters in the Gulf region can be traced way back.
A recent New Yorker profile of Nature Conservancy head Mark Tercek connects that organization’s push to work with industries, like oil companies, to protect the environment. The Lake Athanasio project fits that ethos, combining Nature Conservancy funds with a grant from Chevron to pay for the reef construction and longer term maintenance and research that will follow. Seth Blitch says the success of the project is connected to that balance between good economics and healthy ecosystems.
Not only oystermen will make money on this new reef. Local entrepreneurs like Ben Leblanc are getting involved too. His engineering firm Leblanc Marine provides the muscle and infrastructure for the Lake Athanasio project.
Leblanc’s family ran a supply business for shrimpers during his youth. “I’ve been on that water industrial end my whole life,” he says. He also worked as a commercial diver before starting his company.
For Leblanc, the coastal restoration business seems to be a good fit workwise, and for protecting his home turf — or bayou, rather. “My backyard is a canal. I can leave my house by boat. My house is 19 feet above sea level. I’m outside the levee.”
Leblanc says he sees the shoreline he calls home decreasing everyday. He’s hoping projects like this one turn the tide backwards.
Support for coastal reporting on WWNO comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Kabacoff Family Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.