After several natural and man-made disasters, along with the overfishing of Galveston Bay – an area of the Texas Gulf Coast that once contributed significantly to the state’s oyster harvest – the oyster population is at a record low. Now, fishery and wildlife experts across the state and the country are pinning their hopes on a plan to bring the bivalves back.
Lance Robinson, deputy director of the Coastal Fisheries Division of Texas Parks and Wildlife, says prior to Hurricane Ike in 2008, a majority of all the oysters harvested in Texas came from Galveston Bay. He says the sedimentation that the storm surge brought in killed over half of the oyster reefs in that system. That, combined with natural disasters, flooding, drought and a high commercial demand for oysters led to a decrease in production. But Robinson says the Texas Gulf Coast is not the only coastal community struggling to preserve its oyster populations.
“Throughout the Gulf, we are seeing declines in oysters, in other states as well,” Robinson says. “A lot of that is being driven by freshwater events, flooding and certainly harvest pressure is high again – kind of reaching that high demand for this product. A lot of people like oysters, and so, certainly the industry is trying to help meet that demand.”
But Robinson says there’s still hope that the population can recover. He says oysters have survived for millennia, and are used to surviving in harsh conditions. Robinson says a joint effort between Parks and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy will pour substrate, which is a hard material like oyster shells, river rocks or limestone, at the bottom of the bay to provide a hard surface to which the juvenile oysters can attach and begin to grow.
“We will place that crumbled material … and it will just be broadcast or distributed right across the bottom,” Robinson says. “Oyster larvae – they look for dark crevices, so the more crevices and openings within that reef structure, the better for oysters.”
If the project works, harvesters will still have to wait two years for the oysters to grow to the required three-inches before they can be harvested. Robinson says they are already seeing promising results in the preliminary data from the approximately 12,000 to 15,000 acres his department has restored at a cost of up to $15 million.
Robinson says he’s also working with The Nature Conservancy to create sanctuary reefs, where oysters won’t be harvested, and that population will help regrow the oyster population in the rest of the bay.
Written by Acacia Coronado.