Think Oyster Reefs For Protecting Coastlines
BigThink features a video by Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, titled Green Infrastructure Outperforms Gray. I thought it might be about bicycle paths vs. roads or forests vs. gravel pits. Instead, the topic is oyster bed reefs vs. concrete seawalls for protecting coastlines.
The Nature Conservancy has an Oyster Reef Restoration page, noting the scale of the problem:
… decades of over-harvesting, disease, pollution and declining habitat have decimated the massive oyster reefs that once dominated the country’s coastal estuaries. Globally, 85 percent of reefs have been lost, making oyster reefs the most severely impacted marine habitat on Earth.
Because oyster reefs are essential to a healthy marine system, The Nature Conservancy has been experimenting — from North Carolina to Texas — with techniques that may provide hope for the oyster’s future.
Oysters themselves are valuable marine natural resources, especially to oyster lovers. And for those less unenlightened who think oysters yucky, oyster reefs provide key ecosystem services by filtering water (some fifty gallons per oyster per day), and helping protect coastlines from storm waves.
Restoring oyster habitat though is a discovery process and can’t just be mandated by state or federal environmental agencies. As with most economic challenges, societies face knowledge, incentive and coordination problems. The Nature Conservancy webpage linked above outlines the current discovery process and discusses various oyster reef construction strategies. An example from a lagoon in Florida:
“One reason the techniques vary from place to place is that the threats vary,” Brumbaugh offered. “In Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, for instance, we lay oyster mats in the water that are specifically designed to work in the face of boat wakes.”
One way to push oyster reef restoration is federal funding. Matching grants could be offered for state and community organizations to restore and protect coastlines. State and federal agencies would then “staff-up” to handle funding requests, disbursements, regulatory details, progress reports, and the dozens of other bureaucratic requirements that come with new federal programs and policies. Critics note that this top-down approach would be costly and add to current federal government deficits and debt. Plus a federal oyster reef funding process will likely get bogged down and distorted by special interest group politics (funding for reefs would tend to go to the districts of congressmen heading key committees).
It is better to think of oyster reef restoration as an opportunity rather than a problem. Rather than restoring oyster reefs because they used to be there, it makes sense to restore or create oyster reefs where they create goods and services. People pay to consume oysters, which generates income for people to harvest, prepare and serve oysters. And the coastline protection new oyster reefs provide is of great value to property owners. Oyster reefs provide habitat for fish, crabs and other marine creatures (and we humans prefer this habitat and these creatures to the mud, muck, worm, and microbe habitat of un-restored offshore areas).
Figuring out how to develop new coastal oyster communities is a challenge beyond what state or federal agencies or even thoughtful environmental organizations are likely able to manage on their own. Once the research and basic ecological issues are settled, it would be better to invite in the diverse and often eccentric environmental entrepreneurs to development their own new offshore oystertopias. Like building a baseball diamond in a corn field to attract mythic players, establishing the new rules of the game, the new institutional foundations, will attract investment and entrepreneurs for offshore oyster reef developments.
Economists and economic historians have long focused on the role of clear, enforceable, and transferable property rights for successful economic development. Richard Stroup notes that property rights need to be “3-D,” that is Defined, Defendable, and Divestible (i.e. transferable). See Eco-nomics for more.
Beautiful coastal properties in Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti sell for much lower prices than similar land along Florida’s coast because the weaker property institutions in those countries make development and restoration difficult and uncertain. Corruption, incompetence, and confusion in registering and transferring property titles, getting work permits, and paying taxes and fees make construction and preservation projects a challenge.
Onshore, across the United States, property is mostly privately owned (at least east of the Mississippi). Legal institutions that protect private land ownership provide incentives to landowners to develop their land for agriculture, housing, industry, transportation, or other uses. The Nature Conservancy long advertised that it conserves land the old-fashion way: by owning it.
Land preservation and restoration are among many competing uses for land. Nearby farmers likely see hundreds of “unimproved” acres of as a waste of good agricultural land. Developers might view the land as ideal for homes and apartments. Dirt-bike enthusiasts might believe the land ideal for their noisy outdoor adventures. Back-packers and birdwatchers might prefer open fields and lush forests be set aside for their preferred outdoor recreation.
For developers wishing to invest in offshore oyster reefs, what is the process for getting a permit and for establishing exclusive harvesting of oysters once the reef is established and thriving? I posted earlier on Alabama’s thriving partially-private reefs. State and federal governments still don’t enable private property off the coast of Alabama, but they allow private firms to build reefs and to keep the location secret. So charter boat operators that pay to construct the reefs can take paying customers to them first before other firms discover the location. A better system would be to allow actual ownership or lease-rights for fishing over the reefs, say for a five or ten years or as long as the reef is maintained.
Private land ownership allows these competing land uses to be sorted out through real estate markets, as individuals and institutions bid for exclusive or shared land-use choices.
For rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, the institutional story is quite different. We don’t have offshore real estate markets because we have offshore socialism. Offshore areas are under the legal authority of local, state, and national government agencies. Property owners at water’s edge usually have partial ownership of shorelines out to low-tide, though ownership rules vary by region and state.
Oyster reefs are harder to hide so maintaining the value requires excluding oyster hunters who haven’t invested or paid. Oyster reefs can also be constructed as part of larger recreational or preservation projects. The Clive Runnels Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve in Texas in profiled by the Nature Conservancy. This page discusses the restoration process for offshore oyster reefs at the Mad Island Marsh Preserve.
Mentioned in the Nature Conservancy article is Dr. Jennifer Pollack, a researcher at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, whose Pollack Lab page is a valuable resource for students debating the marine natural resource topic. Videos on this page provide a sense of the oyster reef restoration process and benefits. The first video emphasizes that oyster reefs are valuable for more than oysters. Like other offshore reefs, they provide habitat for other sea creatures so boost sport fishing and crabbing.
So, debaters, let’s find a way to dramatically expand oyster reefs along U.S. coastlines!
This WSJ editorial might be a good place to start. In “Flooding Taxpayers Again”(December 2, 2013), the WSJ notes the federal government has $1.3 trillion of flood insurance in force, and subsidizes insurance to keep rates low for usually wealthy landowners. These artificially lower insurance rates encourage building and rebuilding homes along at-risk coastal areas. Federal flood insurance is now underwater by some $24 billion, and is likely to lose a lot more. So Congress passed legislation to raise rates in 2012. In June the House voted to delay the rate increases. Public Choice theory explains way: costs for the program are spread out to all taxpayers but benefits are concentrated groups of landowners, companies and communities. So they lobby for lower rates and Congress don’t hear from the tens of millions of taxpayers who will pay just a bit more in taxes to cover those lower rates.
Oyster reefs could be a much less expensive way to reduce the coastal damage caused by future storms. And in between those storms we’ll be flush with oysters, clams and fish.