Sex, Death and Oysters

Beneath the muddy waters of Galveston Bay lies one of the greatest seafood treasure troves on earth

Kana ordered all of the Trpanj's oysters dumped overboard and fined the boat more than $250, Misho Ivic tells me later.

"Why wasn't the lease properly marked?" I ask him.

"The thieves cut your markers first," Ivic fumes, "so they don't get caught stealing your oysters."

Buoys mark privately held oyster leases.
Troy Fields
Buoys mark privately held oyster leases.
Game warden Bobby Kana measures oysters. Anything under three inches is illegal in Texas.
Troy Fields
Game warden Bobby Kana measures oysters. Anything under three inches is illegal in Texas.

It was last December when I first encountered burly Croatian-American oysterman Misho Ivic and his son Michael (English for Misho). The Ivics brought their oyster boats to Galveston 30 years ago from Louisiana, where Ivic's wife's Croatian-American family also works in the oyster business.

We met for lunch at the popular oysterman hangout Gilhooley's in San Leon, where we were joined by a marine biologist named Dr. Sammy Ray. An animated 85-year-old with wispy white hair and glasses that seem too big for his face, Ray, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M at Galveston, is one of the foremost authorities on Gulf oysters. He had a bowl of gumbo, and Ivic had "oysters Gilhooley," which are smoked oysters on the half shell with shrimp on top. I had a dozen on the half shell.

I'd arrived with a few misconceptions. As far as I understood it, pollution had wiped out most of America's native oyster reefs around mid-century. For example, at its height in the mid-1800s, the annual harvest of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay was measured in the millions of bushels. Today it produces about 1 percent of its historic peak production.

Conservationists and the states that border Chesapeake Bay are now attempting to rebuild the oyster fishery through tougher controls on pollution, strict limits on oystermen, and the possible introduction of an oyster species from Asia. I'd asked the Texas oyster experts to meet me so I could learn what kind of conservation projects were going on here.

"When was the peak harvest of the Galveston Bay oyster fishery?" I ask the marine biologist.

"Right now," Ray says with a wide grin. "I predict this will be the biggest season we've ever seen. Misho's Oyster Company alone will outproduce the entire Chesapeake Bay this year." I look at the oysterman in puzzlement.

"I agree," says Ivic. "And it's going to keep getting better. In the 1950s, there were boats dredging the oyster reefs and hauling off the oyster shells to build highways. Since they threw those guys out of Galveston Bay, the oyster reefs have grown 40 percent."

"But what about the pollution?" I ask.

"Pollution isn't a problem for oysters," says Ray. In fact, oysters eat the algae that sewage produces, filtering the water and making it cleaner. You just don't want to eat oysters that come from areas near pollution sources.

None of this is making any sense to me.

"I'll tell you a story," Ray begins. "In 1947, the oil companies were being sued for $30 million to 40 million for damage to the Louisiana oyster beds. We were told that Gulf oysters would soon disappear. The supposition at the time was the oil drilling was killing the oysters." Two teams of scientists set to work, one for each side of the lawsuit.

After two years, both sides came to the same conclusion, he says. If there was oil in the water and the water was salty, the oysters died. If there was oil in the water and the water wasn't salty, the oysters did fine. It wasn't oil or pollution that was killing the oysters; it was too much saltwater.

A hundred years ago, the Mississippi River broke into a lot of little distributaries that flowed into the salt marshes of western Louisiana. There were oyster reefs all over the Gulf in those days. But then a federal flood-control project built levees on the Mississippi River. The levees succeeded in controlling flooding, but they also cut off the flow of freshwater to the marshes and to the offshore oyster reefs.

Oysters can tolerate fairly high salinity, Ray explains, but their predators, mainly oyster drills, starfish and a disease called dermo, all thrive in saltwater. So you need a steady supply of freshwater flowing in to keep the salinity down and the pests away. Oyster reefs locate themselves where freshwater and saltwater meet. If you have a drought year, the oysters can survive. But after three years or so of high salinity, the oyster population gets wiped out.

The perfect scenario for oyster growth, Ray tells me, is a dry spring, which gives the oyster larvae the slightly elevated salinity they need, followed by a wet summer and fall, which drops the salinity and keeps the oyster's predators away. And that's part of the reason for Galveston Bay's remarkable oyster harvest this year. Not only have the oyster reefs benefited from years of recovery and better water quality, but last year we had the ideal weather pattern.

At a holiday party in a Montrose apartment, two women, both of them new to Houston, are talking about the disgusting waters of the Gulf of Mexico. One is from San Francisco and the other is from Cleveland. How could anybody swim in the oil blobs and flotsam of that ugly brown water? the San Franciscan asks. I smile and shake my head amiably. Personally, I swim in that water every summer, and I have marinated my children in it for most of their lives. But if Galveston is too unsightly for the newcomers' beachgoing tastes, well, then "bless their hearts," as we say in Texas.

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