ROCKPORT — With the temperature dropping quickly on the coast, they started before the designated start time of 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday.
The volunteers, some of whom were sleepy teens from Moody High School in Corpus Christi or just as sleepy graduate students from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, shoveled about 40,000 pounds of oyster shells into metal buckets.
Another pair of hands fed the shells through a tube that had a hard mesh bag on the end of it. Someone else tied the bag into a knot and stacked it.
Though theirs was a serious task, thwarting erosion at Goose Island State Park battered by a Category 4 hurricane last year, they found communing with Mother Nature fun too.
Two students challenged each other to a squat-off. They used shovels weighed down with shells as barbells, bent their knees and kept their backs straight, giggling all the while.
Joseph Lopez, 27-year-old from Waco, rewrote the folk song “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to “99 Bags of Oyster Shells on the Ground” as he “picked one (bag) up and passed it around.”
Lopez, who was visiting his girlfriend, a TAMU-Corpus Christi student studying marine biology, said he enjoyed wading into the bay that borders the park with the other volunteers to build a new oyster reef.
“I was like, ‘Hey, why not?’ We don’t have a lot of volunteer opportunities in Waco,” Lopez said.
This bi-annual event was founded in 2009. The Institute collects shells from restaurants and wholesalers twice weekly and takes them to the Port of Corpus Christi where they are quarantined. Until recently, no mechanism existed for them to be returned to the water. Oysters, which spawn in April and May, prefer to establish themselves on their deceased brethren. They also can’t go too deep into the water column because they need the algae at the top.
Eighty-five percent of the world’s oyster reefs have disappeared, said Gail Sutton, the Institute’s chief operating officer.
“This is one of the few animals where you’re not only taking them (to eat) but their home as well,” she said.
Sutton explained that this year, the volunteers would be building upon the success of last year.
Before Harvey made landfall, the Institute had completed a six-acre reef made from the shells it collected from restaurants to protect the park from erosion.
“We were disappointed at first because we had saved all that shell, a million pounds, and finished this reef that had taken years and thought it had all been wiped out in a month,” Sutton said.
But they designed it with cuts, so if water came at the reef fast, the water wouldn’t back wash the reef out. And it worked. The reef survived Harvey.
“Not only were we really pleased, but so was the park,” Sutton said.
Every year, about 2,000 linear feet of shoreline at the park erodes, some stretches more rapidly than others. Oyster reefs cut down on the wave action that leads to that erosion.
The park is also home to live oak trees whose limbs have been twisted by the wind, one that’s considered one of the biggest in the nation. It has a circumference of 35 feet, a crown spread of 90 feet and stands 44 feet tall.
“What’s happening is not only is the land eroding, but also the salt water is coming underneath and getting to the roots and that will kill those trees,” Sutton said.
The reef built Saturday is near the 6-acre reef that survived an almost direct hit from Harvey, but is closer to the shore.
Jarrod Boudreaux, a park ranger, said he was happy to see so many young people helping out. He recalled Harvey as a terrifying experience and said it took a while for staff to get back to the park because some lost their homes.
“We literally had to move mountains to reopen. We had tons of sand and shell to move off of some of our roadways before we could reopen (to overnight visitors) on March 1,” he said.
The fishing pier and Trout Street camping areas remain closed because of due to significant hurricane damage.
Gabriella Robles, a 16-year-old environmental science student at Moody High School, hugged her teacher, Vinay Dulip, when it was all over.
“I did it!” she told him.
Gabriella had seen oysters in a touch tank when the Institute brought them to her classroom, but on that Saturday, her clothes were sopping wet from crouching down to place bags of shell on the muddy bay bottom.
“It was a great experience to see everything firsthand,” she said.