Environment

Texas Oyster Season Hasn't Weathered Our Storms Very Well

A tough way to make a living at the best of times.
A tough way to make a living at the best of times. Photo by Daniel Salazar

Texas oysters really can’t catch a break.

Oysters are delicate creatures. The reefs act as enormous filters, clearing all manners of things from the waters, but they have to live in brackish water. If the waters are too salty, the oysters become vulnerable to parasites that will kill them. If the waters aren’t salty enough, they’re invaded by bacteria, which can also kill them.

Thus, the storms that ripped through the Bayou City and across the state over the past weeks have brought more trouble. In addition to toppling powerlines, upending trees and flooding homes, the brisk steady clip of storms rolling through the state also sent a glut of freshwater into the Galveston Bay and other waters along the coast, decimating oyster reefs, another blow to the reefs, and to the storied industry that revolves around them.

Texas oysters – and the people that harvest them from the Galveston Bay and the waters stretching along the rest of the Lone Star State coastline – were already having a bad year, something the fishermen who turn out annually to trawl the public reefs from November 1 to April 30 must be growing used to by now.

For more than a decade, the bad years have come along regularly, as Texas has been beset by ever-intensifying storms and droughts that stretch for months if not years.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike dumped tons of silt onto the reefs in East Galveston Bay, one of the largest sections of oyster reefs on the coast. Since then, droughts have spiked salinity levels in the bays, making the oysters vulnerable to parasites, while the gushes of fresh water from Hurricane Harvey and all the other really big storms have left the waters without enough salt, leaving oysters vulnerable to bacteria.

The result: some reefs have been nearly wiped out, as we’ve noted before. Texas Parks and Wildlife, the state department charged with monitoring the public reefs, has regularly closed the public reefs where they’ve found the oysters are either too small or too few in number to be harvested. The start of the last season in November was no exception, with the state only opening one section for public harvest.

On top of that, the fishermen who have managed to obtain oyster reef leases – leases that allow them to harvest in specific areas outside of the annual public season – got another surprise. In early May, even before the full onslaught of fresh water had made it into the bay system, there was already enough fresh water to trigger alarm bells, leading the Texas Department of State Health Services to close all of Galveston Bay.

And all that was before the North Texas floods sent fresh water down the Trinity, and before the San Jacinto and other Houston area waterways spilled out of their banks with the derecho storm following right behind.

Reefs along our stretch of the Gulf Coast have just been inundated. In Galveston Bay alone, officials are reporting mortality close to 100 percent, leading Galveston County Judge Mark Henry to issue a disaster declaration last week in a bid to tap into federal funds to help sustain the industry. They’re estimating Galveston County will lose roughly $15 million due to the storm, Henry stated, noting that the industry pulls in about $30 million annually.

“Galveston and Chambers counties are facing an unprecedented crisis that threatens the livelihoods of many families and businesses,” State Rep. Terri Leo Wilson, of Galveston, said in a statement. Wilson followed up Henry’s declaration by calling for Gov. Greg Abbott to declare a state of disaster for both Galveston and Chambers counties.

If Abbott grants that request this will also allow local officials to tap into state funds to help the reefs, and the industry, recover. Considering all of this has unfolded before what may be an “active” hurricane season, according to meteorologists, it’s definitely a good call to for Wilson to have asked now.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray