On a breezy afternoon on Tres Palacios Bay, Ellis Chapman and Mario Marquez plunged into the warm coastal waters to raise oyster baskets on one of only two research oyster farms in Texas waters.
The long-awaited arrival of commercial oyster farming in Texas, which was legalized last year during the 86th Legislature, will provide both substantial economic and environmental benefits. As the last coastal state to legalize the practice, this will also give Texas a chance to compete in an industry than annually brings in $180 million nationwide, according to the Harte Research Institute.
Farmed oysters and wild oysters cater to completely different markets, so the two wouldn’t be competing with each other. Wild oysters are mostly shucked, packaged and sold while farm-raised oysters are almost exclusively produced for the half-shell market.
Commercial oyster farming will not only bring jobs and economic development to coastal communities, but stability to the oyster industry in Texas, according to Joe Fox of the Harte Research Institute in Corpus Christi, who has over 40 years of experience in coastal aquaculture.
Harvesting wild oysters can be unpredictable year-by-year and oyster populations have gradually declined due to a variety of factors such as overfishing and natural disasters. The Harte Research Institute’s website states that Hurricane Harvey, as our country’s most expensive natural disaster, “disrupted nearly every oyster-producing region in Texas.”
Farming oysters will bring more reliability to the industry because they can be harvested year-round, unlike wild oysters.
Beyond the economic benefits, oyster farming is also a sustainable way to conserve wild oyster populations. Oyster reefs play many important ecological roles, such as providing a habitat for other animals, filtering the water and protecting shorelines from storms and erosion.
Farmed oysters will provide much of these same ecological benefits while in the water. More oysters being grown in baskets also takes the pressure off existing reefs allowing them to recover and repopulate.
Because farm-raised oysters spawn before they are harvested, they release larvae that can attach to natural reefs and help restore them, Fox told the Advocate recently.
Taking a multidisciplinary approach, the Harte Research Institute is working with Texas A&M AgriLife Research to operate the Palacios Marine Agriculture Research Center in Palacios, where renovations to build one of the state’s first oyster hatcheries is already underway. And Texas Sea Grant is serving as an educational resource for potential oyster farmers.
This will be an opportunity to create a profitable business while also improving the environment. Some locals like Lee Knezek, a 54-year-old Matagorda County resident working on permits for a farm in Matagorda Bay, aren’t wasting any time to be a part of it.
“It is a win-win situation for the ecosystem,” he told the Advocate recently. “There is nothing bad about oysters. You really can’t find one bad thing about ‘em.