Galveston's Red Tide Appears to Have Dissipated, Oysters Recovering

On January 27, two small portions of Texas Gulf waters were conditionally opened to shellfish harvesting after a red tide epidemic forced the indefinite closure of oyster season in October.

San Antonio and Espiritu Santo Bays were approved by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for commercial oyster harvesting, while the Texas Department of State Health Services closely monitored the waters for remaining signs of this year's devastating red tide.

Cautiously optimistic news came yesterday from Jim Gossen, owner of Louisiana Foods and oyster expert, who stated that the red tide appears to have finally subsided.

"It appears that, as of the end of last week, the red tide in Galveston Bay has officially dissipated," Gossen wrote. He was quick to caution, however, that this does not mean that Texas Gulf waters are now fully open for oyster harvesting.

"No higher than acceptable readings were found anywhere in Galveston Bay last Thursday or Friday," Gossen reported of the red tide's toxins, which are produced by an overabundance of algal bloom. In the Gulf of Mexico, the algae responsible for red tides is Karenia brevis, algae that occurs naturally in the ocean.

In normal periods, the algae is present in much lower concentrations and poses no threat to marine life. During a drought, like the one Texas just experienced, a red tide can and often will occur as the result of a lack of fresh water flowing into increasingly salty Gulf waters.

When a red tide occurs, dense concentrations of the Karenia brevis algae make the water appear red. The algae then begins producing neurotoxins en masse, paralyzing the central nervous systems of fish and other marine life. While oysters aren't killed by the toxins as fish are, they are compromised: A person who eats a red tide-affected oyster can become seriously ill with neurotoxic shellfish poisoning. This past year's red tide was a huge blow to the Texas Gulf oyster population, whose beds and reefs had already been devastated during Hurricane Ike.

With the opening of the San Antonio and Espiritu Santo Bays, TDSHS has begun the process of pulling and testing oysters from around Texas Gulf waters. Says Gossen, "TDSHS is hopeful that Galveston Bay will be open within the next two weeks."

The San Antonio Bay is closing once again tonight at midnight, this time due to an overabundance of fresh water from recent rains. But the bay is expected to be opened again by TPWD in another week, at which point waters may be cleared to reopen to all commercial oyster harvesting.

It's still uncertain how the oysters will ultimately be affected by this most recent red tide, but Gossen is optimistic, saying: "Looks like we are almost out of the woods."

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Katharine Shilcutt