Texas oysters have been the subject of much discussion for many years. The compounding effects of hurricanes, tropical storms, droughts, flood events and unscrupulous actions by some within the commercial oyster industry have resulted in unprecedented destruction and loss of our public oyster reefs.
During the 2016-2017 oyster season, there was an observable shift in harvest tactics utilized by the commercial oyster industry. Appalling measures were taken to harvest oysters with little regard for the impact on our fisheries, sensitive habitat, personal property and public resources.
Some tactics employed included walking the dredge up to the shoreline to harvest shallow water reefs, dredging under (and hitting) docks and piers, knocking down channel markers, dredging and cutting channels to venture further back into bay systems (St. Charles Bay), hand-picking oysters from shorelines, operating four-wheelers in sensitive areas (spartina marsh and bird rookery islands) to retrieve harvest sacks and harvesting oysters from closed waters (e.g. Swan Lake, Drum Bay and Bastrop Bay).
One of the bay systems that suffered the consequences of such actions is Christmas Bay, a shallow waterbody within the West Galveston Bay system measuring approximately 5,700 acres at mean high tide.
Until this past March, Christmas Bay had not been negatively influenced by human activity and was generally considered a unique, high quality secondary bay system and —because of its abundance of oyster reef systems and seagrass—one of the most ecologically productive bays of the Galveston complex. Christmas Bay also happens to be one of 24 coastal preserves under the Texas Gulf Ecological Management Site (GEMS) Program. Sites within the GEMS Program are considered high priority for protection, restoration and conservation by both state and federal governments.
By March of this past year, with nearly 70 percent of the public harvest areas closed by TPWD, a significant portion of the commercial oyster fishery was deployed to Christmas Bay. Christmas Bay suffered greatly; seagrass was trampled, marsh-edge habitat was destroyed, shoreline reefs were devastated and litter was left behind.
Christmas Bay has become the rallying cry by concerned anglers, conservationists and even some within the oyster industry for our state to do more to protect this public resource and the ecosystems it supports.
The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) Texas has been working with state officials for some time now to develop additional protections for our public oyster reefs. Several options are on the table, two of which will be discussed in this article.
This simple idea has several key benefits. First, a sanctuary will offer protection for oyster broodstock. The larvae produced by broodstock within these sanctuaries will be carried by currents and tides to surrounding areas, seeding nearby public waters and serving as a source for sustainable oyster harvests in the future. Because these reefs would be off limits from commercial harvest, they would be able to grow in their complexity.
One of the main arguments against oyster sanctuaries is, “If you don’t work oyster bottoms with rakes, sleds, tongs and dredges, they quickly will be silted over by sedimentation.” This is a misleading statement.
It is true that our landscape has changed dramatically over the past century, and we do have more sediment washing downstream into our bays and estuaries. The real problem, however, is that we continually work our existing reefs down to the bay bottom, which results in little to no vertical relief. If we would simply allow our reefs to build and increase their 3-D structures, complexity and height, there would be little concern about them becoming covered in silt.
Take the Sabine Lake reef complex for example: Measuring nearly four square miles (about 2,500 acres), the oyster reef complex within Sabine Lake is potentially the largest natural reef in the United States, simply because we have not allowed harvest for over the past seven decades. In a bay system that receives substantial runoff and sedimentation, this is a remarkable occurrence.
Another claim against this process is that if oysters are not harvested, they will die from predation (crabs, oyster drills, black drum) or become covered in mussels. No successful predator or disease will kill all of its prey, and again, we need to look no farther than Sabine Lake to refute this argument.
Sanctuary areas also serve as attractive locations for fishery managers, researchers, biologists and conservationists to conduct restoration projects. CCA Texas has dedicated over $6.2 million dollars in restoration efforts in the past 10 years, and the notion that we could embark on future efforts with guaranteed protection from commercial harvests is an attractive one.
TPWD made significant investments to restore Dollar Reef in Galveston Bay after Hurricane Ike, only to have it devastated by the commercial oyster industry a few years later. Restoration projects funded by public monies should not be vulnerable to commercial harvest, plain and simple.
Numerous scientific studies prove that oyster reefs on and adjacent to our coastal shorelines serve a unique function for our bays’ ecology. Researchers in Florida have found that oyster reef habitat supported nearly 4.5 times the aquatic biomass found in seagrass beds and roughly 11.5 times the aquatic biomass found in marsh edge habitat.
Dr. Greg Stunz, Director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, and his team of marine biologists have made similar discoveries here in our coastal ecosystems and are worried about the fate of our oysters.
“We specifically have become concerned with the recent intensive harvest of very shallow reefs (less than three feet) that have, up until recently, been generally released from commercial harvest,” said Stunz. “Not only are destructive fishing practices used, but these reefs are likely a reserve for oyster spat and are particularly beneficial to our bays and estuaries.
We have conducted numerous studies on the importance of shallow sub tidal oyster reefs in Texas over the past several years,” said Stunz. “Our findings have shown that these areas support extraordinarily high densities of ecologically and economically important fisheries.
“Moreover, the juxtaposition of these areas within the habitat mosaic—typically surrounded by other habitat types and free of harvest—cause these areas to be unusually productive. These areas are much more productive than deeper open water reefs. Thus, the intensive harvest of these shallow reefs is alarming and raises concerns.”
The time has come for the State of Texas to take additional measures to protect this public resource and reverse these current trends. CCA Texas members and other concerned Texans are encouraged to speak up and share their concerns for our oyster reefs. If you haven’t already voiced those concerns with your state representative and senator, do so now.
You should also have an opportunity to address Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission directly at their next meeting on August 24, 2017. In the meantime, check our blog (www.ccatexas/blog) and your email inboxes for updates and opportunities to speak up for our oysters.
Shane Bonnot is Advocacy Director for Coastal Conservation Association (CCA).