While conservationists recently celebrated news that three threatened bay systems would be closed to oyster harvest, concerns remained that other areas would inevitably bear the brunt of intense commercial harvest. Unfortunately, those concerns have become reality as the oyster fleet has descended on the relatively few areas that remain open to harvest.
“The department is potentially sacrificing oyster density and future availability of oysters, particularly in East Matagorda Bay (TX12),” stated Robby Byers, CCA Texas Executive Director.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission had hardly announced the closures for Ayres, Mesquite and Carlos Bay reefs before images of dozens of oyster boats clustered on East Matagorda reefs were being shared on social media. In an effort to minimize the economic impact of the closures on local families and businesses that depend on oyster harvests, TPWD acknowledged that intense harvest would bring biological risk for shellfish populations in other bay systems and has pledged to be diligent in its oyster population monitoring.
“What we feared is coming to pass in East Matagorda Bay and the Department will have to act fast to rescue those reefs. In its current state, the oyster fishery is the epitome of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’” said Shane Bonnot, CCA Texas advocacy director. “With nearly 500 vessels reporting landings last year and the season essentially closing after two months of harvest, it is clear to see that the industry is over-capitalized, and more work is needed to encourage license buyback, lease expansion and oyster mariculture participation. No reef can withstand this kind of intense, localized pressure the way things are being managed now.”
In his comments to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission on November 3, 2022, CCA Chairman Mark Ray predicted the Department’s compromise to open areas that are less than robust was fraught with peril and he outlined what additional steps would be necessary to create a sustainable oyster fishery.
“In my view of this contentious situation, you have made a compromise by allowing oyster fishermen to harvest in those areas and that poses a biological risk to oyster populations and will potentially result in culling and discard mortality, jeopardizing next year’s oyster season and, more importantly, oyster reefs recovering from previous years’ harvest,” stated Ray. I understand this is a means to an end – a necessary attempt to keep the fishery viable while maintaining some semblance of the current management strategy. But make no mistake, that was the compromise. A public reef fishery, oyster leases and oyster mariculture. These are three legs of the stool that will support the future of this fishery. Currently, one leg is broken. Another is too short. And the final leg has yet to be glued to the seat.”
CCA Texas has encouraged TPWD to continue coordination of restoration and regulations workgroups that were created after the March 2022 Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting. Along with our conservation partners, we are committed to collectively investigating management alternatives that will improve sustainability of the fishery and provide future opportunities for oyster fishing. In the meantime, TPWD must find ways to prevent the consolidation of vessels into shellfish harvest areas, particularly small shallow-water bodies like East Matagorda Bay, where there aren’t adjacent protected areas to serve as a future seed source and the consequences of overharvesting will be realized well beyond the degradation of the oyster reef.