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Cedar Bayou to be reopened (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
June 26, 2014 at 1:26 a.m.
Updated June 27, 2014 at 1:27 a.m.

A drainage pipe used in the dredging of Cedar Bayou on Matagorda Island leads out to the Gulf of Mexico.

James Fox, 73, of Rockport, remembers when recreational fishermen would flock to Cedar Bayou to catch flounder, redfish and spotted trout as they swam through the pass.

"Cedar Bayou brings all the food - plankton and all the way up the food chain - into those bay systems. It's the lifeblood for the north end of all of the bays in the Coastal Bend area," said Fox, who was a full-time fishing guide for about 48 years.

Cedar Bayou was bulldozed shut 35 years ago in an attempt to protect the bays from one of the largest oil spills in history, the Ixtoc I oil spill near Campeche, Mexico. "When I quit guiding wade fishing in that area, I could feel the sediment building up. Normally, you wouldn't sink an inch because it's a real hard sand with a beautiful bottom with sea grass. But you could feel a layer of silt building up from where there was no flow and tide movement," Fox said. "And the fishing of those bays suffered."

A $9.4 million dredging project to replenish the ecosystem in Mesquite and Aransas bays is underway at Cedar Bayou, at the southernmost tip of Matagorda Island.

Past attempts to reopen the bayou have been unsuccessful. But a better-funded and more comprehensive design is expected to restore the water exchange between the bays and Gulf and provide a route by which fish, shrimp and crabs can carry out their natural life cycle, which involves migration between the Gulf and bays.

Adding to the necessity of the pass is an ongoing drought and lack of a break in the barrier islands from Port O'Connor to Port Aransas. Coupled with evaporation and a lack of freshwater inflows, stagnation in the bays has created an environment that in places has higher salinity than the Gulf of Mexico.

"We are in a drought. We need freshwater. There is very little freshwater coming into the Gulf. When the salt content gets real high, the crabs just go bury in the mud. They can't harvest crabs because there aren't any crabs to harvest. They've gone into whatever state they go into when they don't like the environment," said Carter Crigler, president of the Aransas Bay chapter of Coastal Conservation Association Texas.

Fish, crab and shrimp lay their eggs near the open mouths of inlets. Tidal flows bring those eggs into the bay where the aquatic life hatches and is nurtured by estuaries, where the young have a lower mortality rate and a greater food source. After two or three years, the matured fish head back into the Gulf, where the cycle begins anew.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi's Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies has been conducting baseline research on the state of the bays systems near Cedar Bayou and comparing them to the inlets near Port O'Connor and Port Aransas.

First reviews of the samples collected at 14 sites from Aransas Pass to south San Antonio Bay indicate a noticeable difference between the amount of fish in areas with an inlet and those without, said Quentin Hall, a Master of Science student in the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies' marine biology program.

"All the fish, crab, shrimp - everything that lives in the bay has to go out into the Gulf. It's part of their life cycle. Without that, our bays have been dying. Things have been pretty bad for the shrimpers and crabbers around here," said Aransas County Judge C.H. "Burt" Mills Jr.

Since the pass has closed, there's been an effort to open it back up again. The current effort began about 10 years ago with a local group named Save Cedar Bayou Inc. and was taken over by Aransas County in 2008.

Construction on the project began in early May and will be completed by mid-October, when the only remaining wild flock of whooping cranes are expected to return from their nesting ground in Canada to their wintering grounds on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Matagorda Island.

As of Sunday, dredging has progressed about 2,400 feet in Cedar Bayou, or about a third of the total distance to open the pass, and excavation on Vinson Slough had advanced about 2,300 feet. When complete, both Vinson Slough and Cedar Bayou will be 100 feet wide and 6 feet deep and form a Y-shape from the bay to the Gulf.

"They're digging like little moles on the Vinson Slough part. They're on schedule to complete the project by October," Crigler said.

Dredging is limited to daylight hours to protect critically endangered Kemp's ridley turtles, which are making nests on Matagorda Island.

The payoffs of the dredging effort are expected to be dramatic and quickly achieved.

Species samples collected after Packery Channel, an inlet at the southeast corner of Corpus Christi Bay opened around 2005, showed results within days, said Greg Stunz, director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation.

"It's been a huge boom in the economy regionally," Stunz said.

Another factor working in favor of a quick turnaround in bay recovery is the timing of the Cedar Bayou opening, which is expected to align with the spawning of redfish.

"The minute the bayou is open, when they get all of the construction equipment out of there, you cannot imagine - especially during the weekends - what an economic benefit it's going to be for us," Fox said.

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