Texas will soon have its own stake in the U.S. multimillion dollar oyster farming industry, and residents are eager to get the program started along the coastline where the critical species is in an alarming decline.
But a lot has to happen first.
Officials and stakeholders gathered at Victoria College’s Emerging Technology Complex on Thursday afternoon for a public hearing with the Texas House Committee on Culture, Recreation & Tourism about House Bill 1300, which tasked the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife with creating the infrastructure for a mariculture program by Aug. 31.
The department has been collaborating with Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Coastal Conservation Association Texas and the Texas Restaurant Association to develop regulation plans that will be brought to the Parks and Wildlife Commission in May and put in place by Sept. 1. In the process, staff has contacted 21 coastal states and a few foreign countries that have already legalized and developed the industry.
“The department staff also worked very closely with Rep. (Todd) Hunter’s Oyster Aquaculture Task Force and the department also established a work group that provided other insight,” said Lance Robinson, the state’s deputy director of coastal fisheries.
Robinson presented the committee with an update on plans that will be presented to the commission at its May meeting, where the program could be approved ahead of deadline.
Three permits will be proposed for the program – a broodstock permit for hatcheries to harvest wild oysters and spawn them to produce seed, a nursery permit for individuals to grow oyster seed and a grow-out permit for individuals wanting to grow oysters to harvestable size, he said.
Only oyster seed produced from native Texas oysters will be allowed in the program.
One of the biggest challenges is figuring out where oysters will be farmed, Robinson said. Applicants will be able to nominate locations, but environmental impacts and user conflicts such as existing oil and gas activities or navigation corridors, as well as proximity to recreational activities and factors such as salinity, will be taken into account during the approval process.
The department has broken down elements into two tiers and developed a tool to examine them in each bay system where operations could be sited.
The proposed regulations would give those who have sites approved 12 months to submit a permit application. There is no proposed size limit on sites, but the department has proposed that the permits last for 10 years.
Shane Bonnot, Coastal Conservation Association Texas’s advocacy director, urged the department to weigh public feedback for nominated sites.
“I mean if you are getting overwhelming objection from the public that this is not a good spot because it is a popular spot for wade fishing or birders or access to a shoreline, then it seems pretty clear that they should look at moving to another location,” he said.
Bonnot also suggested looking at setting a maximum acreage for farmers and maximum acreage for bay systems to control concentration as the industry grows.
“That is something that could maybe be looked at down the line,” he said. “You don’t want to give someone 20 acres and 30 acres. These things need to start small. We need this program to be successful.”
Brad Lomax, owner of Water Street Inc. restaurants in Corpus Christi, is eager to start oyster farming. He testified in front of the committee on Thursday, where he identified himself as a “oysterprenuer.”
Lomax sells about 600,000 oysters annually at one of his restaurants, and has restored several acres of a reef in St. Charles Bay by recycling shells after consumption.
“I am committed to getting started in this business and doing it ourselves,” he said. “I am more convinced than ever that this is an exciting growth opportunity.”
Lomax was among multiple panelists that said a hatchery is needed in Texas as soon as possible, and was not shy in urging Texas Parks and Wildlife to get the program going before the fall deadline.
“There is not 250 people that are trying to get into this business right now,” he said. “The ones that I’ve talked to are committed to doing it in the right, responsible way and setting the example and tone.
“How we let this industry get started and develop is going to play a big role in what the industry looks like in 10 years and I think it is going to be significant.”