Oyster season opening, slowly

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Jan. 31, 2012 at 8:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 30, 2012 at 7:31 p.m.

Red tide hasn't killed oyster season, but it has shortened it.

Oyster season was due to open in November, but state waters have remained closed because of red tide algae.

Red tide carries neurotoxins that kill fish and make oysters and other shellfish toxic. The toxic bloom thrives in warm, salty water and has killed about 4.5 million fish this season, Texas Parks and Wildlife marine biologist Meredith Byrd said.

Byrd said the geographic scope of this red tide, from Galveston to South Padre Island, is the largest since 2000. The last red tide incident was in 2009.

After three months of delay, oyster season started at midnight on Thursday with the opening of San Antonio Bay and Espiritu Santo Bay, after the oysters from the bay passed tests conducted by officials from Texas State Department of Health Services.

However, the state health department re-closed San Antonio Bay at midnight Monday after heavy rains meant that freshwater potentially laced with bacteria would be rushing into the bay from area rivers.

Only Espiritu Santo Bay remains open. Texas health officials are continuing to watch the waters and test those that look clear of red tide to see if they can be reopened, Byrd said.

The delayed season has been hard on those in the industry, Curtis Miller, the owner of Miller's Seafood, said.

"Every time something like this happens, we lose more of them from the industry," Miller said.

He noted it was already set to be a tough season for those in the industry with a 3:30 p.m. curfew on daily harvesting, and a 50-bag limit imposed on the daily catch this year.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Warden Rex Mayes said the earlier curfew and the bag limit were prompted by requests from those in the industry.

Clifford Hillman, the Hillman Shrimp and Oyster Co. president, believes the new regulations will be good for the industry in the long run.

Cold weather and rain have been clearing the bays of red tide. As that continues, Hillman said he believes the state health department will begin reopening the waters for oyster harvesting in the coming weeks. The bays won't open until oyster meat has passed stringent state health requirements, Hillman stressed.

The industry has already been suffering because of the stigma attached to Gulf Coast seafood in the wake of the BP oil spill. The recession has also been a struggle, since oysters aren't a staple food, Hillman said.

Hillman is more worried that people will be nervous about eating Texas oysters than he is about those in the industry making up the income lost in the delayed opening of the season.

"Red tide scares people, oil spills scare people, but the state health tests are incredibly stringent and any Texas oysters on the market have been checked and rechecked and are safe to eat," Hillman said.



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