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The Bend Magazine

Meet Dr. Jennifer Pollack

10/31/2019 02:46PM ● By Kylie Cooper
Conversation by: Kylie Cooper  Photos by: Lillian Reitz

HAVE CONSERVATION AND SUSTAINABILITY EFFORTS ALWAYS BEEN SOMETHING YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT?

As far as I can remember, I have always liked to be outside, and I have always liked science. But growing up, I thought that if you liked science, the only job available was to become a medical doctor. As a senior in college, I applied on a whim for an unpaid internship at a marine lab, and I just loved it – the field work, the exploration, all of it. I think this is what ultimately put me on the path toward a Ph.D. in Marine Science. I am particularly interested in providing scientific information to help address environmental challenges and to promote coastal conservation and sensible use of coastal resources. 

YOU FOUNDED THE "SINK YOUR SHUCKS" OYSTER RE- CYCLING PROGRAM; TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT THAT INITIATIVE MEANS AND ENTAILS. 

We started the “Sink Your Shucks” program back in 2009 – we are a decade old! The goal of the program is to recycle shucked oyster shells from restaurants, festivals, and seafood wholesalers for use in habitat restoration. Oyster reefs are key components of healthy Gulf of Mexico estuaries. They filter and clean bay waters, create fish habitat, protect shorelines from erosion, and support a robust seafood industry. However, oyster reefs are severely degraded compared to historic levels. Because free-swimming larval oysters settle – attach and grow – on the shells of older generations, essential habitat is lost when shells of harvested oysters are not returned to bay waters. We have recycled over 1.6 million pounds of shells, engaged over 2,000 volunteers in habitat restoration, and restored over 20-acres of oyster reef in the Coastal Bend. 

WITH THE RECENT PASSING OF HB 1300, THE BILL THAT NOW ALLOWS OYSTER FARMING IN TEXAS, WE SEE BOTH ECOLOGICAL AND ECONOMIC GROWTH HERE IN THE COASTAL BEND. WILL YOU ELABORATE ON THAT AND EXPLAIN HOW GROWING OYSTERS LOCALLY WILL BE BENEFICIAL? 

Oyster farming (Mariculture) has the potential to bring new jobs and a new industry to the Coastal Bend. The Texas coast is known for fresh seafood, and oyster farming would help ensure a more sustainable supply of seafood for restaurants and consumers. When grown under the right conditions, oysters can also benefit the environment because they filter the water around them and provide physical habitat for many other species. One adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water or more within 24 hours, so the potential benefits for water quality are tremendous. We have been working with Representative Hunter’s Oyster Task Force and with Texas Parks and Wildlife to provide data to inform the rule making and site selection process. 

OF ALL YOUR RESEARCH EFFORTS THUS FAR, WHAT HAS BEEN ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE THINGS TO DISCOVER IN THE PROCESS? 

Twice a year, in the spring, we host community-based habitat restoration events at Goose Island State Park. The events are open to the public and all sorts of volunteers participate, from school kids and Scout troops to retirees and winter Texans. Over the course of about 3 hours, we work together to create new oyster reefs in areas that need it most. Right now, we are working in an area that experienced a lot of erosion after Hurricane Harvey; as the oyster reef becomes established and grows, it will act as natural breakwater to minimize wave energy. Getting kids and adults involved in restoration is one of my favorite things, because it creates meaningful connections to the bays in our backyard and gives people a reason to care about keeping them healthy. 

WHAT DO YOU CURRENTLY SEE AS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT CONSERVATION ISSUES? 

Habitat loss. Healthy natural habitats are deeply important to human health and well-being, although the connection may not be immediately obvious. We depend on healthy habitats to support all aspects of our daily lives; from the food we eat and air we breathe to the medicines that keep us healthy and the materials that supply our homes and cities. Habitat loss is also the main driver of declining global biodiversity, and the ability of natural habitats – and the human communities that they support – to bounce back from disasters is a direct function of this biodiversity. The amount of habitat loss on the planet is staggering. Urban sprawl, deforestation, mining, and desertification can all easily be seen from space. Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope. Conservation and resource management have grown, and some of the best minds in the world are working to conserve and protect our remaining special places. 

THE CLIMATE CRISIS CAN SEEM SO OVERWHELMING. WHAT IS SOME ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE TO PEOPLE ABOUT EFFORTS THEY CAN MAKE THAT WILL ACTUALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE? 

Individual actions CAN make a difference! Eat locally and low on the food chain (like oysters). Visit one of the multiple farmers’ and seafood markets in town to make this easy. Conserve water – pumping and treat- ing water and wastewater is incredibly energy-intensive, and electricity production and consumption is a major source of atmospheric CO2. Support birds and butterflies (biodiversity!) and plant native plants to minimize water use. Reduce your use of disposable products – especially plastics, both the production and recycling of which are energy- and water-intensive. Carry reusable bags, bring your own water bottle, and skip the straw. Keep your food waste out of the landfill to reduce methane (a potent greenhouse gas) production by setting up a simple compost bin in the back yard (and use the resulting nutrient-rich fertilizer on your lawn or garden). These are all efforts that can make an impact. 

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT LIVING IN THE COASTAL BEND? 

We moved to the Coastal Bend in 2007, and we never imagined how rich our community experience here would be. I love being part of a community that has so many creative people doing inspiring things to push the boundaries of local food, art, and music. I love seeing new, homegrown businesses pop up downtown. It feels like Corpus Christi is really coming into its own unique identity, and it is inspiring. I aspire to be a part of that community sense of place in some small way.