Marine Science Institute receives federal nod to establish third largest coastal reserve

AUSTIN, Texas—The federal government has approved more than 200,000 submerged acres near Port Aransas as the site where the first coastal research reserve will be established along the western Gulf of Mexico.

The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute will develop an environmental impact statement and management plan for the site over the next 18 months. Dr. Paul Montagna, project coordinator for what will be called the Texas National Estuarine Research Reserve (TxNERR), noted that federal approval of those documents would likely mean the research reserve opens in early 2006.

View of the Mission-Aransas Estuary from the lighthouse tower at Harbor Island

View of the Mission-Aransas Estuary from the lighthouse tower at Harbor Island.

Photo: MSI

“We are thrilled that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has approved this site that Governor Rick Perry nominated,” said Montagna, a professor of marine science at the university. “It includes some of the most pristine coastal land in Texas.”

The closest reserve of the current 26 in the National Estuarine Research System is nearly 700 miles east of Port Aransas in Moss Point, Miss. As a result, TxNERR contains distinct ecosystems, which scientists from across the nation would be able to study to learn how to improve the ecosystems’ future management.  

The reserve would extend from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to northern Redfish Bay. It would consist of 236,000 acres of submerged state land known as the Mission-Aransas Estuary, and Cedar Bayou, the Aransas and Matagorda National wildlife refuges, several smaller conservation areas and the Marine Science Institute (MSI) site. The region contains everything from coastal prairie land and saltwater marshes to bays that have sea-grass meadows and oyster reefs.

Montagna, who began researching the possibility of a reserve near MSI in the mid-1990s, expects TxNERR studies to focus on topics that include biodiversity, determining how much freshwater is needed to maintain healthy bays and estuaries in the reserve, and analyzing the effects of climate change on coastal erosion and other processes.

A live oak in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

A live oak in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo: MSI

“Federal funding provided to other national research reserves has been instrumental for advancing research about many coastal issues,” he said.

Current national reserves receive about $500,000 annually for research and educational initiatives. TxNERR educational outreach would be carried out by MSI staff, and is expected to include a living laboratory where visitors would interact with coastal plants and animals.

“The best way to understand how important estuaries are is to see, first-hand, the delicate relationships that exist between organisms that thrive where freshwater and saltwater mingles,” said Dr. Lee Fuiman, director of the MSI.

The MSI is the oldest marine laboratory on the Texas Gulf Coast. It has 13 faculty conducting research, and staff who educate 25,000 visitors annually about marine science at a visitor’s center and related facilities on site. The MSI would manage TxNERR in collaboration with federal and state agencies, guided by state and federal conservation rules already in place.

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System began in 1972 when the Coastal Zone Management Act was enacted. Texas became eligible to have a research reserve in 1997 with federal approval of the state's coastal management plan.

For more information contact: Dr. Paul Montagna, Port Aransas, 316-749-6779, and Barbra Rodriguez, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675.