Oyster harvesters struggle to survive (w/video)
May 3, 2014 at 12:03 a.m.
SEADRIFT - A cool, blue morning greets five oyster boats as they make their way out of Harbor Road marina on the last day of the commercial oyster season.
The boats break off, staking claims to their day's piece of San Antonio Bay with a makeshift buoy - an empty plastic jug tied to a bit of heavy chain.
Around their buoy, the boats begin a circular dance, like water bugs in a swimming pool.
A chain from the top of the vessel sinks into the water at a 45-degree angle beside the boat. On the end of the chain is a dredge, a metal rake pulled along the sea floor and lifted back into the boat, where oysters are sorted from barnacles, empty shells and other sea creatures.
At the beginning of the season, oyster boats packed the bay, close enough to one another to overhear the Latin music, laughter and curse words from another vessel.
Wednesday, crews on the five remaining boats watched one another, guessing who would be the first to call it quits when dredges full of mud and empty shells caused captains to do the math: There weren't enough oysters to cover the cost of fuel.
A sea change
Six months earlier, crews going out at 6 a.m. could bring in 50 burlap sacks, with about 10 gallons of oysters each, by noon. During the final six days of oyster season, crews were lucky if they brought in 20 sacks by 3:30 p.m.
"Early in the season, there wasn't a place to tie your boat. Now, there's no oysters left. I never thought I'd see the bay in the condition it is now. These guys are working closed waters 'cause they're so desperate," said Bryan Shannon, 55, of Seadrift, who has been oystering in Texas bays for more than 30 years.
Shannon grew up in Galveston. His first job was working on his dad's fishing boat. He used to own his own oyster boats, but when his wife was diagnosed with cancer and he couldn't turn a profit harvesting oysters, he sold his boats.
"You used to be able to make a good living oystering," Shannon said. "I'm glad my kids didn't take after me."
The mean season
The commercial oyster season, from Nov. 1 through April 30 coastwide, began with added competition from Galveston oyster harvesters who came south in search of healthy oyster reefs.
After Hurricane Ike wiped out half of the reefs in Galveston Bay, many have yet to recover.
A continued drought also has made the bays warmer and saltier, conditions that result in more natural predators for the oysters, such as parasites, snails and bacteria.
In late March, oil from a shipwreck in the Houston Ship Channel made its way south, further clouding the future of oysters in Texas bays.
The list of reasons why there were no oysters at the end of this year's season is long, but more worrisome is whether anything will change next year and in the seasons to come. If not, what will become of Texas Gulf oysters in the future?
Kidneys of the sea
In addition to providing a livelihood for those who harvest and sell oysters, mollusks keep Texas bays healthy.
One oyster filters about 50 gallons of water per day, said John Herron, Texas director of conservation programs with The Nature Conservancy.
The kidneys of the sea also provide habitat for other animals and buffer shorelines from waves, helping to prevent shoreline erosion. But the practices of overharvesting and digging up oyster shells for road base in the early 1900s led to the destruction of 50 percent of Gulf oyster reefs, Herron said.
Over time, laws have been put in place to attempt to create sustainable harvesting of the remaining oyster reefs. About 600 boats hold licenses for oystering in Texas; of those, 400 oyster commercially, said Capt. Rex Mayes, game warden for Texas Parks and Wildlife in Victoria.
"Several years ago, we put a moratorium in place that said if you didn't have a license, you can't buy a license. That's still in effect. If you don't have an oyster boat license, you can't just go down and buy one. You have to convince someone to transfer their license to you," he said.
Laws also were set in place to limit the size and number of oysters that can be harvested.
"Oysters grow on top of oysters. These guys are required to knock off undersized oysters from legal-sized oysters," Mayes said. "The undersized oysters are next year's crop."
Here and now
In late March, an outbreak of Dinophysis algae, which releases a toxin that can quickly accumulate in the tissue of oysters, clams and mussels and cause shellfish poisoning in people who eat them, closed bays for about a month. During that time, deckhands, many of whom are from Mexico and hold work visas during the season, went back home or found other jobs.
On April 25, the bays reopened to oystering with six working days until the end of the commercial season. Typically, the boats have a captain and two or three deckhands. But with six days left and no place to find help, some captains went out on the sea alone.
"I scrambled. I was working single-handed," said Mauricio Blanco, who harvests oysters out of Seadrift. "We depend on guest work."
Shannon, of Port Lavaca, gave up harvesting before the end of this season but filled in on Capt. Erasmo Montemayor's oyster boat during the last few days when no one else was available for work.
On Wednesday, he pulled in dredge after dredge, which used to have about a sack worth of oysters each. The first dredge had seven live oysters, the next 10 and then two.
"If you count your money like this, it doesn't add up very quick," Shannon said.
Add oil to injury
A southeast blowing wind brought oil from a 168,000-gallon spill in Galveston Bay about 200 miles down the Texas Gulf Coast in late March. As the bunker fuel made its way south, it stayed outside of the bays, washing up on Matagorda, Mustang and North Padre barrier islands.
The type of oil spilled - a thick, residual oil - is gooey, sticks together and floats on water, making it less likely to disperse in the water, unlike light oil, which can spread quickly and has hydrocarbon components that dissolve in water.
"Heavy oils are ugly and messy, but the good news is that they tend to glob together and not dissolve, and this dissolution is a possible route of exposure for the toxic hydrocarbons in oil to get to the oysters. Remember, for harm to occur, you need both toxicity and a route of exposure. If either are absent, there will be no harm," said Edward Overton, professor emeritus in the department of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University, whose research includes fates and distributions of hydrocarbons in marine environments following oil spills.
The Texas Department of State Health Services overlayed a map of the oil path with that of active oyster reefs. The nearest the oil came to any potentially productive oil reefs was between 1 to 2 miles, Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Christine Mann said.
"There's no indication that the oil spill impacted public or private leases of oyster beds," Mann said.
As long as there are legal-sized oysters to be harvested - 3 inches or larger - and the prices are good, restrictions placed on oystering allow harvesters to continue to turn a profit and follow the rules. But when the prices are high and there's no legal-sized oysters to be had, both oyster harvesters and oyster buyers are enticed to break the rules.
As of Thursday, 33 people were charged with oystering in closed waters in Calhoun County this year. Closed waters are areas shut down to oystering by Texas Department of State Health officials because of algae or bacteria in the water, which make shellfish unsafe for human consumption.
Those who harvest oysters in closed waters can get up to one year in jail and a fine of $4,000, said Dain Whitworth, an assistant district attorney for Calhoun County.
"I'm trying to give the captains 20 to 30 days in jail. The crew members I've been more lenient with and given one to six days in jail, a fine and court costs," Whitworth said. "What we want them to do is not oyster in restricted areas because I like oysters, and I don't want to get sick."
More oyster harvesters were caught harvesting oysters in closed waters this year than last year, Whitworth said.
"It may be that oysters are harder to come by, and that's why they were in restricted areas," he said.
Where did they go?
Multiple factors have contributed to the recent loss in oysters, including hurricanes, severe drought, reductions in freshwater inflows and more harvest pressure, partially driven by the loss of production in other Gulf states, said Lance Robinson, upper coast regional director for the coastal fisheries division of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"This is not something that happened overnight," he said.
Lingering drought conditions have led to saltier bays and warmer water temperatures. While more salinity does not directly affect the oysters, parasites and predators of oysters thrive in higher salinities. The higher salinities can also lead to algal blooms in bays.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and flooding in Louisiana and other Gulf states has led to reduced production of oysters, putting added harvest pressure on the Texas bays.
In a normal year, a sack of oysters goes for $19 to $22. This year, sacks were as high as $40, Robinson said.
With record-high prices and demand for oysters, harvesters and buyers break the rules.
In addition to fishing in closed waters, some harvesters bring in oysters under the legal size. Fifteen percent of a boat's catch is allowed to be under the 3-inch limit. If a game warden catches a boat with more than that, the crew is ticketed and forced to dump all of its day's catch back into the bay.
"In Rockport, they've made cases of 50 percent undersized oysters. Some of these fisherman aren't even trying," Mayes said. "They don't think about tomorrow or next year or any other time."
Just as some harvesters are eager to catch whatever they can get, there are buyers who will purchase those oysters without questioning their size or where they came from.
"We have some good fishermen in our area trying to do the right thing. The fishermen that are not trying to do the right thing are harming their livelihood," Mayes said.
No quick fixes
It takes about two years for an oyster spawn, called a spat, to attach itself to the shells, rocks and coral that form an oyster bed and grow to a 3-inch harvestable size. During the harvesting process, the material that spats attach to, called cultch, which is largely made up of old oyster shells, is taken out without being replaced.
In April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District completed a $1.3 million project to restore 12 miles of oyster reef of the Half Moon Reef in Matagorda Bay.
The project replaced oyster shells lost to harvesting with limestone, which studies show is a cheap and accessible substitute, Herron said.
"That reef was essentially used up," he said.
Half Moon Reef will remain closed to harvest for two years but is expected to be productive enough for conservation and oyster harvest when it reopens, Herron said.
Two other restoration projects, one in Copano Bay and another in Galveston Bay, are scheduled for the near future.
Conservation groups aren't the only ones trying to make oystering in Texas sustainable. Oystermen and women have asked for stricter enforcement by Texas Parks and Wildlife to save their livelihood.
In 2011, oystermen and women pushed through state legislation to place a restoration tag fee of 20 cents per sack on oysters. The money from the tags is earmarked to replace cultch material along public reefs within Texas bay systems. In the same bill that created the restoration tags, a clause was created to allow the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to close waters when it was determined the oysters were being overharvested. Texas Parks and Wildlife and members of the commercial oyster industry developed the overharvest criteria, initially set at 90 percent undersize, that would be used to determine when an area should be closed.
In 2014, based on concerns about the large number of undersized oysters being harvested, the oyster industry and Texas Parks and Wildlife decreased the set limit to 70 percent undersized oysters, and for the first time, bays were closed because they did not have enough legal-sized oysters available for harvest.
Texas Parks and Wildlife accessed about 2,000 oysters in Copano Bay and almost 500 oysters in Galveston Bay and determined more than 70 percent of oysters in those bays were smaller than 3 inches. As a result, both bays were closed by Texas Parks and Wildlife shortly after being reopened by Texas Department of State Health Services in late April.
"I think there are some tools that are in place that will get us out of this hole, but it's not going to happen overnight. The resource is having a hard time right now. We can't control all of the mortality factors," Robinson said.
Capt. Erasmo Montemayor, 64, of Port Lavaca, is hoping to make up for this year's oyster season with a good shrimp season, which begins May 15. Next year, he'll be back on the water again with his oyster boat, Katrina Rene.
"We survive. It's not like before, but we make some money," Montemayor said. "We're still going to do it because we have no choice."