Oyster season opens after Harvey; new rules adopted

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Oct. 31, 2017 at 9:45 p.m.
Updated Nov. 1, 2017 at 8:02 a.m.

Caren Collins, a fish and wildlife technician for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, measures the size of an oyster.

Caren Collins, a fish and wildlife technician for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, measures the size of an oyster.   Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

Some wildlife officials hope Hurricane Harvey's downpours across Southeast Texas will only clear the plate for the struggling oyster industry instead of starving it.

Oysters filter saltwater for food.

If they get an influx of freshwater - such as the torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey - oysters stop that filtering and die in about a week.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department found that to be true in East Galveston Bay, where 51 to 100 percent of the oysters died after Harvey stalled over the region.

Lance Robinson, the deputy director of the department's coastal fisheries division, said one upside is that research has shown the influx of freshwater also kills the organisms competing with the oysters for food and leads to greater productivity in oysters years later.

He pointed to West Galveston Bay's spike in productivity three years after Hurricane Claudette dumped 42 inches of rain within a day near the city of Alvin.

"I think we'll have a decent season. It's certainly not going to be a bumper crop," he said.

But with new rules to adhere to when the season opens today, others are less optimistic than Robinson.

Wesley Blevins hasn't reopened his business, Chunky Monkey Seafood, since Harvey.

With the power out for 12 days in Seadrift, he lost almost $37,000 in inventory.

The 72-year-old isn't sure whether he wants to reopen because of that loss and because the state's new rules about oysters place some responsibility on salesmen like himself to identify oysters that are undersized. If they don't, they could be fined or jailed.

He also said the amount of money Texas collects for each sack of oysters makes it hard for the fishery to compete.

"I'm afraid that Texas oysters are not going to be in real good demand because if you can buy them $4 cheaper in Louisiana, that's where you're going to buy them," Blevins said.

This year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Department of State Health Services are opening half of the shellfish harvest areas.

It's not clear how that compares in size to past seasons because the shellfish harvest areas are different sizes.

Six shellfish harvesting areas are open in Matagorda (East and West) and Lavaca bays and one shellfish harvest area is open in San Antonio Bay.

The mortality rate for oysters in those bay systems was not available.

Robinson and his colleagues have been studying more than just oysters after Harvey.

And they've been amazed at what they've found swimming in the bays that are now more fresh than salty.

For example, they've found an unusual number of common snook in Matagorda Bay.

"It has to do with the freshwater inflow and the warm temperatures. Snook need warmer temperatures," said Julie Hagan, also of the department's coastal fisheries division.

Snook, which have long, concave snouts with jutting under jaws, are saltwater fish, but they are normally caught in the lower Laguna Madre near pilings and other underwater structures.

It's not clear how Harvey will affect fishermen directly, but like Robinson, Hagan is optimistic partly because Harvey pushed more nutrients into the bays, which will help red fish spawn.

"For fisherman, it's more infrastructure than anything else. There are counties right now that don't have boat ramps, so fishermen have to go some place new to get on the water," she said.

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Helpful information

Where to get water, gas and other supplies

Helpful information after the storm

Updates on city services


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