Texas Game Wardens in Calhoun and Aransas counties opened more than 70 criminal cases during a four-day operation targeting illegal commercial oyster harvesting.
As a result, game wardens returned 436 sacks of oysters weighing about 47,960 pounds to bays, according to a news release from Calhoun County Game Warden Chelsea Bailey. Many of the violations were for possession of undersized oysters that are critical to the sustainability of the state’s reef ecosystems and future harvests.
“The effort employed by our game wardens and federal partners during this operation to protect these resources is truly inspiring and extremely noteworthy,” Major Ellis Powell said in the news release. “Not only is it a public health and safety concern, but the economic and ecological impacts are tremendous as well. Our mission is to assure compliance with regulations that will help sustain these resources for many years and generations to come.”
Conducted from Dec. 14-18, the operation included assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard, Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office and Aransas County Sheriff’s Office.
Game wardens made 12 arrests for possession of undersized oysters from oystermen who had two or more prior convictions of the same violation, a Class B misdemeanor offense, and issued 42 citations for possession of undersized oysters, accounting for 32% of the cases. Other arrests included unlawfully selling molluscan shellfish, a Class A misdemeanor; unlawful commercial sale or purchase of aquatic products, a Class C misdemeanor; and possession of marijuana, a Class B misdemeanor.
Most of the violations, if not all, were discovered in San Antonio Bay, Bailey said.
Game wardens also issued numerous warnings. U.S. Coast Guard boarding officers also identified more than 20 violations related to vessel crew and safety requirements.
Game wardens have continued to check boats and issued additional citations since the operation ended, Bailey said.
“We have been issuing some, not as many because we obviously don’t have the man power we did during the operation, but we’re still seeing undersized oysters coming out,” she said.
Oyster season runs from Nov. 1 through April 30 along the Texas coast. Compliance with regulations is typically high at the start of oyster season but more undersized oysters tend to be harvested as the season progresses because the reefs thin out.
Penalties for illegal oyster harvesting were enhanced by the 85th Texas Legislature and 86th Texas Legislature in efforts to crack down on repeat offenders.
Measured along any axis, oysters must be 3 inches or larger in size to be legally harvested. Oystermen are required to cull and return undersized oysters to the reef they were taken from though undersized oysters can legally make up a percentage of their harvest.
The amount of undersized oysters that can be harvested was reduced from 15% to 5% in 2017, and the penalty for possession of undersized oysters was enhanced to a Class B misdemeanor offense. Since 2017, law enforcement officials have also been able to hold all workers on oyster boats accountable for possession of undersized oysters whereas the boat captain was previously the only person who could be penalized.
To check for violations, game wardens measure and count oysters in one sack per every 20 sacks on each boat, Bailey said. Nearly 670 boats were contacted during the operation.
The number of criminal cases opened during the operation is about half of the more than 140 opened during a similar operation during the previous season.
Jarrett Barker, assistant commander of fisheries enforcement at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said there appears to be increased compliance this season that is not directly related to the enhanced penalties but rather the COVID-19 pandemic.
When restaurants started closing in March, local oystermen saw a sharp decline in demand.
“This year the demand for oysters is down because of restaurants being closed and open to reduced capacity,” he said. “There isn’t a market for legal oysters thus no need to get illegal oysters.”