After more than a decade of effort, we are finally on the verge of restoring Cedar Bayou. Thousands of hours have been devoted to this cause and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to investigate the pass, develop the plans, obtain the permits, and ready the construction drawings, which are now under development. The final push to secure the funds for the job is now underway and there is no doubt it will be worth the energy and the money to get it done. The benefits of the Restore Cedar Bayou project are deeply appreciated by the locals who know the bay system best. Here is what they understand.
Texas estuaries are critical to the health of the coastal ecosystem and function best when they are hydrologically connected to the Gulf of Mexico. From the tiniest sea-bottom critters, to the crabs, bait fish, Whooping Cranes, ducks, game fish and all the way up the food chain, everything benefits. When re-opened, Cedar Bayou will be the only connection through the barrier island system for almost 76 miles between Pass Cavallo and Aransas Pass. The passes act as an open door to encourage many species to utilize the safe harbor of the bays and estuaries. With Cedar Bayou closed, occupation of nursery areas by shrimp, fish, and crabs is restricted and, most importantly, is delayed approximately one month due to the distance species must travel from the distant passes at either end of the Aransas Bay system. This significant delay and reduced access to nursery areas suppresses biological productivity and function and is detrimental to the entire bay flora and fauna. The Cedar Bayou Restoration Project will restore the direct historic connection between the estuary and the Gulf, re-invigorating marine life in the bay and restoring productivity to the ecosystem.
Talk to an old timer who fished Cedar Bayou before 1979 and you will be regaled with great stories of fabulous fishing, abundant flounder, beautiful red fish, and stringers of spotted trout. In years past, fathers, sons and families made annual trips to Cedar Bayou and Vinson Slough to greet the fish runs through the pass. Escaping the crowds to fish Cedar Bayou was a family affair and a time-honored tradition. Listen closely to the stories and you cannot help but feel the pain and deep sense of loss of this once great coastal resource. Sure, closing the pass in 1979 to prevent the IXTOC oil from spoiling the bay was the right decision, but we should not shy away from our responsibility now to undo the harm that was done, however well-intentioned it was at the time.
Texas passes that connect the bay systems to the Gulf are critical for many marine species of major economic importance. Populations of Blue Crab, Red Drum, Sea Trout, Brown, White and Pink Shrimp, Southern Flounder and Striped Mullet depend on tidal movement through passes to carry larval and post-larval forms from the Gulf to the inland bay nurseries. Cedar Bayou once served as critical migration route for adult and post-juvenile fish that must move into Gulf waters to mature. When it was open, Spotted Seatrout, Black Drum and Tarpon frequented Cedar Bayou and other inshore gulf passes. If we are smart, they will again.
Surveys have shown that since Cedar Bayou was bulldozed closed in 1979, there has been a noticeable reduction in fish diversity and populations in Aransas Bay.
Scientific research shows that tidal inlets significantly increase productivity of estuarine species and diversity of fisheries. There is no serious dispute that reopening Cedar Bayou will contribute to a more healthy and productive Aransas Bay system.
Cedar Bayou is a relatively undisturbed natural tidal pass accessible only by boat and is distant from any major population centers. Healthy wetland vegetation along the pass shoreline is an excellent but underutilized habitat structure for important commercial and recreational fish species. If reopened, Cedar Bayou will once again provide a very rich, year-round source of food for sport fish, wildlife, and invertebrate-eating birds.
The IXTOC oil is long gone. In the 1980′s and 1990′s, two half-hearted and underfunded attempts were made to re-open Cedar Bayou. Isn’t it time to restore this once-great pass so that it can again serve as a vital waterway for the fish, shrimp and crabs that depend on access to the Gulf to complete their life cycles?
Blue Crabs & Shrimp
The movement of the blue crabs and shrimp back and forth through passes between the Gulf and bay systems is critical to the maintenance of abundant populations. To complete the life cycle, female blue crabs travel out into the Gulf to lay eggs. Multiple growth stages of the crabs initially require the highly saline waters in the Gulf. Very young stages of crabs move back into the bays and into salt marshes where they can grow to adult size in the sheltered habitat of the bay. Historically, blue crabs utilized Cedar Bayou to move into the Gulf, lay eggs, and return to the salt marshes. That ended in 1979 when the pass was bulldozed shut.
Before 1979, larval and juvenile forms of many other sport and commercially important species of shrimp, fish and crabs moved through Cedar Bayou into the estuarine nursery areas in Mesquite, Aransas, San Antonio and other adjacent bays. When the pass was closed, annual occupation of these critical and productive nursery areas was delayed by about a month as the adults and larvae had to travel the added distance to Pass Cavallo and Aransas Pass.
Scientists with the HARTE Institute at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi have found that tidal passes almost always improve the overall habitat and community structure of Texas bays and estuaries. If the Cedar Bayou Restoration Project is funded, we will see an increase in the diversity and abundance of shrimp and crab species in the bay system and in the productivity of fisheries in the area.
That’s a good thing.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the Whooping Crane
Established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) occupies about 115,000 acres. The refuge complex includes the Blackjack Peninsula (Aransas proper), Matagorda Island, Myrtle Foester Whitmire, Tatton, and Lamar units. These areas provide vital resting, feeding, wintering, and nesting grounds for many migratory birds and native Texas wildlife. The refuge was created to protect the breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife, for use as an inviolate sanctuary, and to conserve endangered and threatened fish, wildlife, and plant species.
Notably, Cedar Bayou lies just a few miles across the bay from the Aransas NWR. It is not an overstatement to say that the future of the refuge and its biological diversity and productivity is unavoidably tied to the future of Cedar Bayou.
Today, the most famous resident of the Aransas NWR is the whooping crane, the rarest crane species in the world with only about 245 birds in existence as of February 2012.
The Refuge is world renowned for hosting the largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes each winter. Simply put, whoopers love blue crabs. When available, blue crabs make up as much as 90% of the diet of these extraordinary cranes. In fact, an individual crane can consume up to 80 crabs in day, if they can find them. In the past, the Aransas Bay system was especially accommodating to the whoopers because blue crabs were once abundant in the marshy inlets and tributaries of the bay. And, Cedar Bayou was once a major contributor to the health and productivity of the local blue crab population. More crabs meant more food for the whoopers and a better chance for these birds to recover. That’s still true today, but only if we restore Cedar Bayou.
Recently, there has been a decline in the number of blue crabs in Mesquite Bay, Copano Bay, and Saint Charles Bay. This decrease in blue crabs is believed by scientists to be directly linked to the increase in whooping crane mortality. While there are many factors affecting the survival of the whoopers, declines in the abundance of their favorite food source is hard to ignore. Reopening Cedar Bayou will undoubtedly provide a new and quicker pathway for blue crab recruitment into the Aransas Bay system and may very well increase the population of these rare cranes.
We should not give up on a better future for the cranes. We should restore Cedar Bayou next year.
Birding & Duck Hunting
Aransas County and surrounding areas serve as an international destination for birding, with almost 500 species of shorebirds, water fowl and ducks on record. Cedar Bayou serves a primary value to wildlife, especially fish and invertebrate-eating birds, since it provides year-round source of food. Numerous species of fish-eating birds are abundant on a year-round basis, including Eared Grebe, White Pelican, Double-Crested Cormorant, Olivaceous Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Reddish Egret, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Louisiana Heron, Lesser Scaup, Red-Breasted Merganser, several species of Plover and Sandpiper, Herring Gull, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Little Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, and Caspian Tern. The tidal bar at the surf zone at the bayou’s mouth is a valuable resting and feeding site for many of the birds listed above.
Birders and duck hunters once traveled far to reach Aransas Bay, a favorite wintering range for birds and ducks of many species. Over the years, since Cedar Bayou was closed, healthy marsh habitat has been lost or converted to salt flats. Bird and duck populations have declined, and with them, fewer birders and duck hunters made the trip to this beautiful bay.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can Restore Cedar Bayou.
Quantifying the economic benefits of reopening Cedar Bayou is difficult but that does not suggest that the benefits are uncertain. Restoring Cedar Bayou will improve the productivity of the bay system. More fish, more crabs, and more birds mean more birders, more fishermen, more hunters and more visits by folks who love the Texas coast. More visitors mean more business for local fuel stations, hotels, restaurants, outfitters, marinas, bait stands, sporting goods stores and the like.
According to Dr. Larry McKinney, the economic impact will be “enormous.” ”The economic boost from Cedar Bayou is going to be overwhelming. When Cedar Bayou is open, the fisherman, birders and everyone will show up.”