Oyster Season Delayed

Today, November 1, is the traditional opening of the Texas oyster season. But opening day has been postponed due to a massive outbreak of “red tide.” The red tide bloom is one of several problems hampering the oyster business this season. This is particularly disappointing in light of the great gains we made last year.

For the first time since the early 1900s, Galveston Bay oysters were test marketed by their reef names in the Houston market last winter. The trial was a huge success and Texas oysters got kudos in the national press. This year promised to be the season when Texas oysters would finally take their rightful place among the country’s finest.

And then came the drought. There have been lots of dire predictions and stories in the press that might lead you to believe that the Texas oyster business was kaput. Yesterday, I emailed Lance Robinson, who supervises the oyster fishery as Regional Fisheries Director for Texas Parks and Wildlife and asked him when the oyster season would open and if we had any hope of eating good Texas oysters this year. Here’s what he had to say:

The opening of the Texas oyster season has been delayed indefinitely due to red tide. Blooms are occurring in every bay system along the coast. Galveston is usually spared from these events due to the amount of freshwater the system receives. The current drought the state is experiencing has changed this. Salinities in Galveston Bay are at levels not recorded since the 1950’s. This has resulted in optimum conditions for red tide. As of late last week, cell counts in Galveston were lower than other bay systems but the cell densities continue to increase. History suggests that without a significant rainfall event this bloom could last a long time.

Texas oyster populations are below average following increased harvest pressure last season. This increased pressure was due to the loss of beds in LA and MS due to freshwater kills resulting from oil spill diversions and this spring’s floods along the Mississippi River.

The good news is we had a tremendous spat set in just about every Texas bay system this spring and summer. If the drought breaks and we get enough rain to moderate salinities a bit it should bode well for the future.

So the bad news is we started out in a hole because the Texas oyster reefs were drastically overharvested last year. How does that happen? Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations require oystermen to throw back any oysters under three inches in length. But undersized oysters of two and half and even two inches were making it to the market last year. Game wardens attempting to restrict illegal harvesting were spread too thin. Captains forced to dump their undersized harvest overboard paid their fines, then turned around and did it again. And as a result, we have very few three inch oysters right now.

The good news is we have a lot of baby oysters out there. Oysters take somewhere between a year and 18 months to grow from spat to legal size. Right now we need a significant rainfall event to flush out Galveston Bay and save this oyster season. There will be Texas oysters this year, but they will be expensive and in short supply. We may have to rely on Florida and other Gulf states for our oysters.

But however bad things get, it is reassuring to know that the large spat set this summer holds out the chance of a really great Texas oyster season next year. If we get rain.

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