Texas game wardens in Calhoun and Aransas counties last week led a multi-agency law enforcement surge operation targeting illegal commercial oyster harvest and possession along the coastal bend, netting more than 140 criminal cases. Many of the violations were for possession of undersized oysters that the state’s prized reef ecosystem requires for sustainability and long-term health.
Operation Reef Safeguard I consisted of patrols by Texas game wardens between Dec. 10-14 in collaboration with law enforcement officers with the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Coast Guard, Calhoun County Sherriff’s Office and the Aransas County Sherriff’s Office.
“Since 1895, Texas Game Wardens have proudly protected the state’s oyster resources,” said Col. Grahame Jones, Law Enforcement Director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Texas game wardens consider the protection of our natural resources, including oysters and the reefs they create to be a priority. Texas game wardens take the protection of our oyster reefs very seriously and we will remain committed through increased patrols. Additionally, we will proactively enforce laws regarding oystering in polluted waters with a zero-tolerance approach and will arrest those who place consumers’ health at serious risk.”
Thanks to additional laws created by the 85th Texas Legislature to help combat the harvest of undersized oysters through enhanced penalties, law enforcement officials are now able to hold all workers on oyster boats accountable for possession of undersized oysters. Previously, only the boat’s captain was responsible for an illegal catch. New rules that took effect November 2017 reduce the allowable amount of undersized oyster taken from 15 percent to 5 percent and provided an enhanced penalty for the possession of undersized oyster to an arrestable offense. Some of the violators intercepted during the operation possessed cargos consisting of up to 35 percent undersized oysters.
“It is critically important to protect our oyster reefs from illegal harvesting of small oysters,” said Robin Riechers, TPWD Coastal Fisheries Division Director. “Protecting harvest of small oysters ensures that our reefs stay productive and protects next year’s marketable size oysters.”
With the enhanced penalties for possessing undersized oysters, Operation Reef Guard produced three arrests for Possession of Undersize Oysters third or more offense, enhancing it to a Class B Misdemeanor. Game wardens also observed two oyster boats oystering in restricted waters, Class A misdemeanor violations resulting in five arrests.
In addition to the more than 140 criminal cases, game wardens issued numerous warnings. During the operation, officers also made arrests for multiple penal code violations. U.S. Coast Guard boarding officers identified over 25 violations related to vessel crew and safety requirements.