Oyster season gets underway

By by Dianna Wray
Nov. 6, 2010 at 6:06 a.m.

Rex Mays, a captain with Law Enforcement Division of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department prepares to board a boat on the opening day of oyster season.  Officers with the TP&W were busy checking permits, paperwork and catches  on San Antonio Bay.

Rex Mays, a captain with Law Enforcement Division of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department prepares to board a boat on the opening day of oyster season. Officers with the TP&W were busy checking permits, paperwork and catches on San Antonio Bay.

SAN ANTONIO BAY - Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden Michael Mitchell stretched his grin wider as he nudged the skiff closer to Jesse Stringo's boat.

On the deck of the boat, Stringo's deckhands worked culling oysters freshly dredged from the bottom of San Antonio Bay while Stringo answered Mitchell's friendly smile and greeting with a brief nod.

Nov. 1 marked the beginning of oyster season in Texas and about 200 oyster boats were out in the lower bays, trawling for oysters.

Meanwhile, the game wardens are out in force, making sure the oysters pulled out of public waters are the right size to be harvested.

Mitchell and fellow game warden Philip Bird board Stringo's boat.

Mitchell follows the captain to the wheelhouse to check his oystering license while Bird looks over the days catch.

At 10 a.m., Stringo's boat, the High Roller, is doing better than anyone else on the water, with 25 sacks - worn, brown coffee bags - already lined up, filled with muddy, tightly closed shells of live oysters in the boat.

"Maybe it will be a good season," Mitchell says.

Stringo shrugs his shoulders.

"I don't know. I don't think we're doing that great. It's hard to say what this year'll be like," Stringo says.

Last year saw some good-sized oysters pulled out of San Antonio Bay, but it was a difficult season for Gulf Coast oystering.

About 60 to 65 percent of the nation's oysters come out of the Gulf of Mexico, Hillman Shrimp and Oyster Co. president Clifford Hillman said. Hillman has been working in the shrimp and oyster industry since 1974, the third generation in his family in the business.

In good years, Louisiana waters supply about 60 percent of the catch, with Texas supplying about 30 percent and the rest of the states lining the Gulf supplying the rest, Hillman said.

However, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last April, the Louisiana government let a lot of inland fresh water into the gulf, in an attempt to push the oil from the spill away from the coast.

Oysters need a balance between salinity and freshwater. Too much either way means fewer oysters.

The release of so much fresh water into Louisiana's waters means fewer oysters. Louisiana may not open state waters to oystering at all this year, Hillman said, throwing the pressure of demand almost entirely onto Texas.

However, most of the oysters from Texas are dredged out of Galveston Bay.

When Hurricane Ike roared through in 2008, tons of silt were dumped on the oyster reefs, killing half the beds, almost 8,000 acres worth, according to a report by the New York Times.

Galveston Bay still hasn't recovered, shifting much of the demand onto the lower bays, Hillman said.

A moratorium on oystering licenses in Texas means there won't be a rush of oystermen from other coastal waters coming in, game warden Rex Mayes said.

The likely result will just be a shorter season, Hillman said.

"These guys are out here for profit, so they'll do it as long as they can pay expenses and then they'll be done," Hillman said.

In the meantime, the game wardens are out in force to make sure the oystering is being done according to the law.

The Gulf Coast is one of the last places in the world to offer naturally seeded oyster beds, Mayes said, and the game wardens are charged with protecting the oyster beds found in Texas waters.

"We're here to make things fair for all of the fishermen," Mitchell said, agreeing.

To do so, the game wardens patrol the waters from sunrise to sunset, ensuring oysters are being dredged from approved waters and that the little ones are being thrown back.

"It's hard to tell the size with the first 500 oysters, but by the time you get to 50,000 it's easy," Mitchell said, grinning.

A legal-sized oyster should be about three inches from shell to shell.

Texas oyster licenses allow oystermen to dredge up to 90 sacks, about 110 pounds per sack, of oysters per day. Of the oysters dredged, less than 15 percent are allowed to be undersized.

Oysters aren't allowed to be dredged at night, as a safeguard to keep people out of closed waters where the oysters may be contaminated.

If the game wardens find oyster boats breaking either of these rules, the whole catch is thrown back, they are given a citation and may even be taken into jail.

"We try and keep things polite. They aren't always happy to see us, but I think they understand it has to be done. We've all got to work together to protect this industry for everyone," Mitchell said.

Bird chimes in, agreeing.

"If we weren't here, there'd be nothing left," Bird said.

It's unclear what kind of oyster season this will be, Mayes said.

The heavy rains a few weeks ago caused a lot of freshwater to run off into the bay, he said, but so far the oysters don't seem to have been impacted by the freshwater.

Mayes stood on Stringo's boat, and pried the muddy shell of an oyster open.

"Not too bad. They're not really big, yet, because the water's still warm," he said, poking the soft milky oyster with his finger. "it's hard to say, but this is good for this early in the season."



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