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Drought contributes to oyster shortage (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
Nov. 25, 2013 at 5:25 a.m.
Updated Nov. 26, 2013 at 5:26 a.m.

Ranulfo Guevara Tovar swings a bag of oysters over to Juan Vanda as they unload their boat of the day's catch at the docks in Sea Drift.

Did you know

Oysters eat by filtering water through their digestive systems. If they are in water with bacteria or viruses, they will pick up those toxins and pass them along to the consumer. To avoid illness, only eat certified oysters. Certified oysters are from state health department approved waters, and they have been handled and processed in health department-approved facilities and are from a state health department approved source.

• At the store: Certified oyster containers will have the dealer's name, address, phone number and his or her state-issued permit number.

•  At the restaurant: Ask the waiter or waitress, "Where are these oysters from?" The restaurant is required to keep shellfish tags on file in the restaurant for 90 days.

SOURCE: Curtis Miller, co-owner of Miller's Seafood

PORT LAVACA - When Curtis Miller, 52, of Port Lavaca, was 12, he would walk along Lavaca Bay picking up oysters to bring home to his family.

He didn't have an oyster knife - a dull, short-bladed knife used to pry open oyster shells. Instead, he used whatever household knife he could find in the kitchen.

"You may have heard the phrase, 'The world is your oyster,'" Miller said. "Well, oyster is my world."

His uncle started Miller's Seafood, a wholesale and retail oyster house, about 40 years ago. Miller and his wife, Lisa Miller, 50, of Port Lavaca, took over the business in 1989.

In a good season, Miller's company sends three to four 18-wheelers per day all across the country with oysters from Lavaca and San Antonio bays.

But this season, he said, the ongoing drought is causing a smaller harvest. Since Nov. 1, when the oyster season opened, Miller's Seafood has sent out two trucks per day, a 50 percent drop in production from an average year.

"A lot of the oysters are dead," Miller said. "We did get some rain later this summer, but it might have been too little too late for a lot of the oysters."

The drought does not directly affect oysters but makes bays along the Gulf Coast saltier and warmer, said Lance Robinson, upper coast regional director for the coastal fishers division of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Robinson said higher salinity and warmer bays mean more natural predators for the oysters, like the oyster drill - a type of snail that drills into the oyster's shell and sucks out its innards - and dermo disease, a parasite harmless to humans but deadly and contagious among oysters.

The Gulf Coast's four bays nearest the Crossroads area - Galveston, San Antonio, Aransas and Matagorda, which includes Lavaca - host 84,481.19 acres of water open to commercial oyster harvest, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In the bays, freshwater meets salt water. Salinity fluctuates widely in the Texas bay system, Robinson said. If the salinity rises or falls to a level intolerable to fish, they will move, he said.

"Most aquatic animals will move," he said. "Oysters can't move."

On the other hand, he said, oysters have developed a level of resiliency. Oysters can close their shell to lessen filtration or even change their sex from male to female and back again to produce enough eggs to help populate the reef.

"The oyster population may be down now, but if we get into normal cycles, they will bounce back," Robinson said.

Robinson estimates that it would take two years for the oyster population to return to normal if the drought conditions ended, but that would require oystermen to obey the 3-inch minimum restriction and a healthy batch of spawns, called spats.

The ongoing drought began in January 2011, Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md., said.

He said although there has been some rainfall, the long-term drought levels continue.

But that may change soon. Pugh said a seasonal drought outlook released Thursday predicts the southeast Texas' drought will end by February, but is expected to persist farther south.

The season ends April 30.

Miller said he isn't worried. He's as resilient at the creatures he harvests.

"We've had droughts that killed the bay. We've had floods that killed the bay. Two years ago, the bay was closed due to red tide until the second week of February," Miller said. "One thing about it: Oysters always recover. It all boils down to Mother Nature."

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