PALACIOS - During the oyster season, commercial boats surround Texas Parks and Wildlife Department technicians as they survey reefs in West Matagorda Bay.
The boats flock to where the fishing is good. There, they pull their dredges in tight circles, making abundant reefs look like ballrooms in the bay.
"They're all moving around you in a circle, and so you're stuck in the middle," said Palacios technician Caren Collins. "That's always entertaining and a little frightening at the same time."
Teams of wildlife department technicians survey reefs up and down the state's coast. These surveys help the department understand the health of the crop and make decisions about when to close unhealthy reefs to fishing so they can rebound.
Texas oyster reefs have taken a beating over the past several years, beginning with Hurricane Ike in 2008 followed by drought and flooding. The department has been working with the commercial fishing industry to find ways to help the crop recover.
Thursday, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission reduced the catch limit from 50 sacks per day to 40. The commission also closed harvesting on Sundays during the Nov. 1 to April 30 season and extended the closure of Half-Moon Reef in Matagorda Bay to Nov. 1, 2018.
The new regulations are not expected to cut into the bottom line of the commercial fishing industry, said Lance Robinson, deputy director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Coastal Fisheries Division.
While the oyster season is about 180 days, the majority of the commercial oystering fleet hangs up its dredges after about 100 days, when collecting what's left is no longer economical. And during the 2014 to 2015 season, boats pulled in an average of 23 sacks per day, well below the new catch limit.
The new rules, which take effect Nov. 1, are expected to extend the harvest of oysters further into the season, when the mollusks have bulked up in preparation for spawning.
During the colder months, oysters fatten up with glycogen.
"When you open up an oyster that has a good glycogen content in it, the oyster has this kind of milky cream color to it," Robinson said. "That's kind of the optimum product that the half shell oyster market wants."
But the biggest help to the resource will be closures that occur throughout the season on reefs where there are few live oysters and few oysters of harvestable size: 3 inches and larger.
The department is tipped off to unhealthy reefs in three ways: The department may see a downward trend in its data from the regular surveys it conducts, law enforcement may contact the fisheries department saying they've been making a lot of cases where fishermen and women are caught harvesting undersized oysters, or fishermen or women may contact the department saying a reef isn't looking healthy.
When one of these triggers occurs, the technicians who regularly survey throughout the bays are sent to the degraded reef to verify the tip through more intense sampling.
"When we make a proposal for a change, we have to back it up with hard science data," Robinson said. "Our data has to be defendable because in the past, we've been sued over decisions that we have made, and we try to make our decisions on the best available science."
Last week, off the coast of Palacios, three Texas Parks and Wildlife Department technicians sampled reefs throughout Matagorda Bay. In addition to counting dead and live oysters, the team counted "spat," or baby oysters less than an inch long.
Sampling spat is important because it's an indication of the future of the crop, Collins said.
An abundance of freshwater entering the bay from heavy rains up river has killed off some of the spat set in Matagorda Bay, said Leslie Hartman, the department's Coastal Fisheries Matagorda Bay Ecosystem leader.
"I would have expected to see more spat at this time of year," she said. "I have concerns."
Hartman doesn't just concern herself with the health of the reefs. She's also looking out for the health of the industry.
"One of the ways we do that is trying to look ahead," she said. "If you know your spat numbers are down, you know that means poor harvest in the next year or two."
Though Hartman was raised in the north and moved to Texas in 1991, she has an affinity for the oyster industry.
"We really are trying to be stewards of the critter, but we're also trying to be stewards for the industry," she said. "If our descendants want to be oystermen 150 years from now, we'll have managed the resource so they can."