On the Gulf of Mexico the lingo can be just a little different. What some on the East Coast may call an inlet, the Texans call a bayou. Cedar Bayou separates Matagorda Island and San Jose Island just north of Rockport, but it isn’t open for boats to navigate. Cedar Bayou is what they call a fish pass and after being closed for more than two decades by siltation, it was reopened in September 2014, as a water exchange between the Gulf and Mesquite Bay.
The re-opening of Cedar Bayou touches many bases, including the threat of pollution from an oil spill, and how restoration of oceanic flow can now greatly enhance the natural resources. Saltwater fishing is big business around Rockport and the Aransas area, with guides, lodges and an entire economy built around it. The fishing is very good but citizens anglers knew that it could be better if they could restore Cedar Bayou.
It was back in 1979, during an oil spill in the Gulf that decision makers decided to close off Cedar Bayou via heavy machinery moving earth and sand, to avoid contamination of the entire inland estuary. The strategy worked, but over time the fish pass stayed silted in and the flush of water from the Gulf no longer occurred there. Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), which represents recreational anglers in Texas, was keen to take this project on in the name of conservation.
Researchers from the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico began conducting biological surveys in the area and noticed that the ecosystem was healthy, but perhaps not firing on all cylinders. The smallest and most delicate parts for the ecosystem were no longer present, without any saltwater flow from the Gulf. On September 25, Cedar Bayou was reopened and amazingly, by October 14, researchers found that red drum larvae were newly present in the area.
These red drum will spend the first few years of their lives in the marsh which serves as a nursery, as will many other gamefish species. Redfish receive special attention from anglers since they are hearty enough to handle catch-and-release fishing and because they grow to be much larger than other species like trout. In fact, once the red drum become mature, they exit the estuary and head into the Gulf to become breeders that provide the larvae for future generations.
The project cost $9.4 million to implement, and took years of commitment by Aransas County. Texas Parks and Wildlife contributed a significant sum to the total cost and CCA Texas put in $1.6 million of the total. Now that Cedar Bayou is open, the county pledges to keep the pass flowing via maintenance dredging as warranted. After all, it’s not just about the fish since the entire ecosystem will benefit including blue crabs, which are an interesting part of the food chain.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) runs along the coast, and an endangered species of wading bird seeks this area out as a wintering ground. Blue crabs are the preferred food of whooping cranes which migrate down to Aransas to stay warm and to eat well. While there is fishing in Aransas NWR, the birdwatching may be better. One has trouble deciding whether to concentrate on the fish or on avian photography.
With Cedar Bayou once again functioning as a fish pass, the ecosystem can flourish, bringing in more fish and birds which, in turn, will bring more anglers and visitors. The cost of conservation is considerable but in this case the increased tourism revenues coming into the area should more than compensate for what was spent. It’s hard for man to quantify everything that functions in any ecosystem, but what’s important in this instance is that supporters realized it was imperative to restore Cedar Bayou.