This year’s oyster season opened with new rules adopted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Commission last August. The new rules affect both the recreational and commercial harvest of oysters.
New rules reduce the commercial possession limit of oysters from 40 sacks to 30 sacks per day, reduce the allowable amount of undersized oyster take from 15 percent to 5 percent and close Saturday to the commercial harvest of oysters.
“The goals of these rule changes are to aid in the recovery of oyster resources in Texas’s bay systems, promote efficiency in utilizing oyster resources and provide a more stable price structure for commercially-harvested oysters,” says Lance Robinson, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Coastal Fisheries Deputy Division Director.
TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division continues to assess the impact on oysters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
“The full impact of Hurricane Harvey on Texas oyster populations will depend,” Robinson said, “on factors such as how long salinity levels remained low, the quantity and quality of the remaining oyster habitat and the ability of the surviving oysters to spawn before water temperatures drop.
“For example, sampling in October 2017 found mortalities of 51 to 100 percent in East Galveston Bay and 32 to 42 percent in the middle and lower sections of Galveston Bay. Mortalities are similar in other bay systems, but vary widely within the system, depending on their proximity to fresh water.”
According to CCA Advocacy Director Shane Bonnot 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,” he said.
Some tactics employed include 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.
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. They included the establishment of oyster sanctuaries.
“This simple idea has several key benefits. First, a sanctuary will offer protection for oyster broodstock,” Bonnot said. ”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 according to Bonnot. “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,” Bonnot said. “Measuring nearly four square miles (~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 further than Sabine Lake to refute this argument.”
Another idea is to protect shoreline reefs.
According to Bonnot, 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.
Plenty has changed with oyster harvest in Texas, and there is room for plenty more changes with policy based on science and hopefully the goal of bettering our coastal ecosystems.
—story by AUTHOR