Sex, Death and Oysters

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

"People are constantly climbing a wall of worry," says Ray in exasperation as he eats another bowl of gumbo. "First they worried about pollution. Now that there's no pollution, they're worried about eating the fish."

It's three months later, and I've asked Ray and Ivic to meet me at Gilhooley's for lunch again. I want to ask them a few more questions about the future of the Texas oyster industry. It's the middle of March, and when I checked the water temperature this morning, it was hovering at 65 degrees. So I skip the raw oysters and order the oysters Gilhooley.

Some 430 oyster boats are working in Galveston Bay this season, more than double last year.
Troy Fields
Some 430 oyster boats are working in Galveston Bay this season, more than double last year.
The keepers are piled on deck, and the empty shells and small oysters are shoved overboard.
Troy Fields
The keepers are piled on deck, and the empty shells and small oysters are shoved overboard.

Before I dismiss the subject of pollution, I want to be sure I understand the condition of Galveston Bay. "When I arrived here in the 1970s, there weren't any crabs or fish north of Barbour's Cut," Ivic says. "It was dead water. Today there are crabs and fish all the way up the Ship Channel."

"There are fish and crabs all the way up to the port of Houston," says Ray.

"Would you eat fish that came from the Ship Channel?" I ask him.

"Sure, I would," he says, citing the Department of Health's fishing advisories that do allow limited consumption of fish from some parts of the Ship Channel despite continuing evidence of dioxin and PCBs.

"People would have you believe that Galveston Bay is a polluted cesspool," says Ray. "But that's a lot of nonsense."

"Galveston Bay is the cleanest it's been in 30 years," says Ivic.

He's right -- and the reduced pollution is due to improved wastewater treatment facilities and changes in the rules regarding discharge, thanks in large part to the Clean Water Act of 1970. Scott Jones, water and sediment quality coordinator for the Galveston Bay Estuary Program, notes that dissolved oxygen rates, which were at unhealthy levels (below four milligrams per liter) back in 1969, had increased to healthy levels (six milligrams per liter) by the late '90s.

"We always fight the perception that the bay is polluted, but the reality is that the water quality overall is good," says Jones. "There are still problems with dioxin and PCBs in the Ship Channel, but there are people working on that, too."

"Galveston Bay covers 600 square miles," says Heideman. "About 10 percent of the upper bay is under fishing advisories." The culprit is mainly rainwater runoff contaminated with automotive fluids and excess fertilizer from residential areas. "There are problems," Heideman agrees, "but putting an area under a fishing advisory when you never even had fish there before is a good problem."

"The vast majority of Galveston Bay meets our criteria," he says. "And the oyster reefs are definitely improving. It's a very healthy situation."

No one is really sure exactly what happened to the native oyster reefs of Europe and the rest of the United States. Nor is there a consensus about what we should be doing to protect the oyster reefs of the Gulf Coast.

"People worry that dredging is damaging the reef," Ray says, "but it's not. It's creating new surfaces for oyster sprats to cling to." People worry that we're overfishing, he says, but that's not a problem either. There are a lot of oysters in areas that can't be harvested, and each oyster lays millions and millions of eggs, so there are always plenty of oyster larvae in the water. People worry about pollution, but that's under control, too.

"The real threat to the oyster reefs in Galveston Bay is the diversion of freshwater for flood-control projects," Ray says. "If you want to save the oysters, people in Houston need to stop building houses in the floodplain."

But Ray is the first to point out that the fate of the oyster reefs is mainly dependent upon nature itself. If we get three consecutive years of drought, the oysters will be wiped out no matter what we do. And if we get a couple more years of the same kind of weather we had this season, Galveston Bay could become one of the most famous oyster reefs in North America.

Cooked Oyster Recipes

The prime season for raw oysters is drawing to a close. Here are a few classic cooked oyster recipes to tide you over until next season.

Oyster Nachos

(Adapted from Nuevo Tex-Mex, by David Garrido and Robb Walsh)

Chef David Garrido of Jeffrey’s in Austin invented this crispy fried-oyster nacho, which is now found on menus all over Texas.

Vegetable oil for frying
16 freshly shucked oysters
Buttermilk for dredging
Flour for dredging
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon habanero hot sauce
16 nacho chips
1/2 cup pico de gallo (or chunky salsa)

In a small skillet, heat a one-inch depth of vegetable oil to 375 degrees. Put the buttermilk and flour into two shallow bowls. Soak the oysters in buttermilk, then dip them in flour. Fry each oyster for 45 seconds to one minute, or until lightly brown. Transfer oysters to paper towels to drain.

Mix the habanero sauce with the mayonnaise. To serve, put a teaspoonful of pico de gallo on each chip, then a fried oyster and top with a half teaspoon of the habanero mayonnaise. Yields 16 nachos.

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