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Gulf habitat restoration plan unveiled

MOBILE, Ala. — A habitat restoration plan has been announced for Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound that would establish 100 miles of oyster reefs and 1,000 acres of marsh wetlands and grass beds over the next five years.

The plan was rolled out at Five Rivers Delta Research Center by representatives of Mobile Baykeeper, the Alabama Coastal Foundation, The Ocean Foundation and the Alabama chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was cited as a rallying point for the project, which will need some $60 million in grants and financing.

“I think what the oil spill did is open peoples’ eyes to the Gulf and the disasters that have impacted it,” said Jeff DeQuattro, Nature Conservancy coastal project manager in Alabama. “We may have been doing restoration, but at one-tenth the rate this plan calls for.”

The first phase of the plan, reported yesterday by the Press-Register, is set to begin in October with the enhancement of a small project at Helen Wood Park north of Dog River.

A report by The Nature Conservancy last year said 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs have been lost to destructive fishing practices, coastal overdevelopment and altered flows upstream. A fact sheet said 90 percent of Alabama’s oyster reefs have been lost.

Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama and an oysterman of 35 years, said improving the habitat is critical “for our children, our heritage.”

He said the reefs must be built where they can seed themselves, then survive long-term.

“They’ve got to be a living reef,” Bates said. “Every barrel of shell put over can produce four to five barrels of oysters. When we expend this money — if we expend it in the right way at the right time — then financially, environmentally and historically, we’ll be much better off.”

Judy Haner, Nature Conservancy marine projects manager, said sponsors are seeking grants from agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“If BP turns out to be funding source, that would be great, but if not, we’re moving ahead anyway,” she said.

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