County OKs support of legislation on oyster mariculture

 

Matagorda County Commissioners approve a proclamation in support of legislation to enable oyster mariculture in the Texas coastal waters. 

The proclamation states that new economic opportunities can be realized by developing the state’s coastal resources by allowing oyster reefs to rebuild and perform their natural enviro-friendly functions of water filtration, shoreline protection and providing habitat for coastal marine life and sportfish.

It further states that opportunities exist for sustainable oyster supplies due to the abundant acreage for oyster growth along the Texas coast. The new legislation is needed to ensure a truly sustainable oyster fishery consisting of existing privately leased areas, managed wild-reef harvests and thriving mariculture segments producing millions of pounds of oysters annually.

The proclamation stands in support of new legislation authored by Representative Todd Hunter for sustainability, economic expansion and environmental stewardship of the oyster mariculture industry that will ensure a more consistent, stable and year-round supply of high-quality Texas oysters produced under strict quality guidelines.

Hunter is very passionate about oyster farming and the economic impact that it has on South Texas coastal communities.

 “When you think about it, in the last few years we haven’t seen the oyster industry like we used to have — with oysters on the half shell,” Hunter said. “It is a big travel tourism issue. It brings money into the state and it’s great for the Coastal Bend.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has announced that the Texas oyster season began on Nov. 1, 2018 and will close on April 20, 2019. 

“Sampling results indicate the number of legal oysters is very limited in these areas,” says TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Deputy Director Lance Robinson. “This closure is designed to provide some protection to undersize oysters so they can reach legal sizes. The areas will be closely monitored by TPWD and will reopen when criteria thresholds are met.”

Once an area is closed, it typically takes two years for the reefs to recover and meet criteria thresholds established by TPWD and the Oyster Advisory Workgroup. 

TPWD is seeing numerous positive benefits from House Bill 51 and Department Regulations that were passed last year.

“Decreasing the percentage of undersized oysters allowed on a vessel (from 15 percent to five percent) and increasing penalties for possession of undersized oysters (Class B for multiple violations) has forced the oyster industry to return more shell and small oysters back to the reefs,” says CCA Texas Advocacy Director Shane Bonnot. “TPWD enforcement efforts and industry cooperation of these new regulations have ultimately secured a 2018-2019 season in many shellfish harvest areas that would otherwise be closed.”

In recent years, droughts, hurricane after hurricane and industrial-scale harvesting pressure have changed the Texas coastline and caused damage to the oysters that grow in its estuaries.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill that helped the industry and now the industry is also playing a major role in oyster restoration efforts. The passage of House Bill 51 included a new requirement that oyster dealers return 30 percent of the total volume of oysters purchased in the previous year to oyster reefs in Texas bays. Returning these materials will further enhance the many ongoing oyster restoration efforts in Texas.

Since Hurricane Ike in 2008, TPWD and several partners across the state have invested $20 million to restore more than 1,700 acres of oyster habitat.

Harvey did a number on oysters in Galveston Bay.

Most Houstonians won’t forget August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey dumped a year’s worth of rain on the city, flooding its bayou system and damaging an estimated 69,000 properties. The effects of Harvey reached well into 2018, as many people in Houston continued to restore their lives to a sense of normalcy.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike buried reefs in sediment, blocking oysters from phytoplankton and starving many of them to death. More than 50 percent of the oyster habitat in Galveston Bay was lost overnight. The commercial oyster fleet responded by relocating to other bay systems along the Texas coast that naturally support fewer oysters. The increased harvest pressure on these reefs further reduced the overall abundance of oysters in the state. Later, the advent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which resulted in a temporary closure of all oyster harvest from the Gulf of Mexico except Texas, created an even greater demand for the product.

“This new bill (being sponsored by Hunter) will not hurt the private oyster hunters,” said Bill Balboa, with the Matagorda County Coastal and Marine Resources Extension office. 

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