The Coast Is Your Oyster
Texas oysters are known for their distinct flavor and are a favorite among locals and visitors alike. A popular food source for centuries, oyster harvesting in Texas even dates back to the Karankawa tribe of Native Americans. Today, whether they are fried or on the half shell, oysters are a cherished coastal culinary tradition.
Oysters provide a wealth of economic and environmental benefits. Annually, the oyster fishery is worth about $20 million in Texas alone and about $236 million nationwide. Oyster reefs are great habitats for fish, which not only means a healthier ecosystem, but also great fishing spots for recreational fishers. Other benefits of oysters and oyster reefs include shoreline protection and water filtration.
The mighty oyster isn’t invincible. Droughts, flooding, hurricanes, and chemical spills are among the various pressures devastating the natural reefs and harming the fishery.
Since 2010, Texas oyster landings have declined by 40 percent. Although natural Texas oyster reefs have degraded, the demand for oysters in Texas remains high.
This has caused some Texas restaurants to import oysters from other states, leaving some oyster enthusiasts disappointed.
However, there is hope. Rather than solely harvesting wild oysters, the time has come for Texans to grow their own. Texas is ushering a new industry: oyster mariculture.
In many ways oyster mariculture, or farming in coastal waters, resembles how oysters grow naturally. Farmed oysters will be grown in Texas bays and estuaries, a natural environment that provides necessary phytoplankton and nutrients for the oysters to grow. To protect oysters from predators, farmers grow them in cages. Farmers periodically expose the oyster-filled cages to the air, mimicking the natural rise and fall of the tide on a wild reef. This technique prevents the attachment of unwanted animals or algae growing on their shells and cages.
Mariculture allows farmers to selectively breed oysters to be larger and of more consistent quality. And the days of only eating oysters in months ending in ‘r’ will be gone, because sterile oysters can be produced year-round when farmed.
“It is a win-win situation for everybody. Oysters are a no-brainer in terms of ecosystem services and benefit to the retail sector,” says Dr. Joe Fox, chair of Marine Resource Development at the Harte Research Institute (HRI). “Every other coastal state in the nation does oyster mariculture and has been benefiting from it tremendously."
Mariculture doesn’t compete with wild-caught oyster fisheries because these oysters are typically sold on the half shell — think raw oysters ordered at a restaurant — because mariculture can produce an oyster that is more consistent in shape, look, and taste. On the other hand, wild fisheries generally produce shucked oysters without the shell, because these catches produce more variation.
"The industry members are supportive, as mariculture will be complementary to and not in place of fishing,” says Dr. John Scarpa, associate professor at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. “We want to make it so oyster fishermen can continue to fish, so that together we can supply enough oysters locally, and there can be exports.”
Oyster mariculture also has the potential to help restore the natural reefs and slow down overfishing.
When farmed oysters spawn, they release larvae into the water column that may disperse outside of the farm and settle on natural reefs. With an estimated global loss of 85 percent of natural oyster reefs, this ecosystem service could prove to be vital for Texas reef restoration.
Each cage, which is one square meter, can save about 10 square meters of wild oyster reefs harvested, according to Fox. “The main thing is the supply of oysters,” he says. “By supplying oysters through farming versus fishing, we have the potential to save a lot of reefs from overfishing and destructive fishing practices.
THE PULSE OF THE COAST
To legalize oyster mariculture in Texas, people from different sectors had to get onboard: everyone from local community members, to scientists and politicians, to oyster fishermen and other oyster fishery members, to restaurant owners.
Fox and his colleagues attended countless meetings in Austin and with the different fishing communities. Texas Sea Grant extension agents also jumped on board to help develop rapport with industry members and the public.
“One of the things that I like about Texas Sea Grant is that it’s local. Specialist and extension agents are situated allover the coast. So, when talking to Texas Sea Grant people, you can really feel the pulse of the coast,” Fox says.
One of those early Texas Sea Grant visionaries was Bill Balboa, a retired extension agent and now executive director of the Matagorda Bay Foundation.
After enlisting some advice from some oyster experts, Balboa began to more seriously consider the possibility of bringing oyster mariculture to Texas, and he found the perfect place for it. An abandoned research lab in Palacios, which served as an aquaculture learning facility for Texas State Technical College in a previous life, was a prime candidate. The facility was complete with classrooms, offices, and lab space.
“I thought someone should try to buy the facility because it would be the most awesome coastal facility ever. There’s no coastal research facilities on the Central Texas Coast, so this would be perfect.”
With a space identified, Balboa’s vision of oyster mariculture was coming together, so he convinced Fox and others to get onboard. “When Bill Balboa was with Texas Sea Grant, he was one of the first people who got me thinking about oyster mariculture on the Texas coast,” Fox says.
After being given a tour of the facility by Balboa, Fox applied for a RESTORE grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get the facility up and running. The grant was awarded to him, enabling the creation of the Texas Oyster Resource and Recovery Center, in partnership with Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
The center will be primarily responsible for workforce development, while also providing oyster larvae to farms, partnering in research, working with industry, ensuring coastal conservation, and boosting environmental and economic resilience.
SPACE FOR RESEARCH
Maximizing the efficiency of a new industry means working hand-in-hand with researchers. One such researcher working on enhancing oyster mariculture in Texas is Scarpa, who has made a career of bivalve mariculture and knew early on that it was something he wanted for Texas.
Not long ago the Texas industry average was around 5 million pounds of oyster meat produced in a year.
Scarpa and Fox pondered how many acres of mariculture it would take to return to this production. After some quick calculations, they estimated it would take about 2,000 acres — only a fraction of the over a million and a half acres of bay water in Texas.
Since those early conversations, Scarpa has received support from Texas Sea Grant, which “dovetails very well with building the Texas Oyster Restoration and Recovery Center,” as he puts it. His research is dedicated to developing ways to restore oyster stocks in places that don’t have enough oyster larvae. This would essentially “jump start” oyster reefs.
Texas Sea Grant will continue to actively partner with emerging oyster mariculture efforts, providing continued extension and research support. “I think Texas Sea Grant can move this industry forward by funding research on spawning methodologies and research that helps the oyster industry become more self sustaining,” Balboa says.
On May 27, 2019, Governor Greg Abbot signed House Bill 1300 and Senate Bill 682 legalizing oyster mariculture in Texas, making it the last coastal state in America to do so. The bill was championed by Speaker Dennis Bonnen and later Representative Todd Hunter and Senator Lois Kolkhorst.
The bill became law on Sept. 1, and the regulations will be developed over the following year. The legislation enables the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) to create and enforce regulations and guidelines for the industry, which are slated to be enacted by March 2020, with oyster mariculture ready to begin that September.
Being the last coastal state to adopt oyster mariculture has advantages. Other states have established regulatory framework that Texas can use and modify to fit the needs of the Texas coast. To do so, Fox and Brad Lomax of Water Street Restaurants, Inc. in Corpus Christi were charged with heading up the Task Force to interface with TPWD in setting up the rules and regulations.Representatives from Texas Sea Grant,Coastal Conservation Association of Texas, industry, restaurateurs, local watermen, aquaculturists, and others were invited to have a seat at the table.
The goal of the task force is to advise on what regulations could facilitate industry prosperity and protect existing reefs and habitats.
“It’s important to not make the rules so restrictive that they will squash industry growth, but we don’t want to make them so loose that they will allow for environmentally destructive practices. The trick is finding the happy medium.”
Currently there are several projects in the works for oyster mariculture including the Palacios facility which will be operated by HRI and Texas A&M AgriLife Research and will raise oyster larvae for seeding on reefs. A second hatchery operated by Texas A&M AgriLife Research is also slated to open in Flour Bluff. To evaluate oyster cage culture, a research farm operated by HRI will soon start in Matagorda Bay that will house 180 oyster cages.
“There is a new era of seafood production on the Texas Coast.” Balboa says, “We have the opportunity to create a fishery that is brand new in Texas. This is an opportunity to bring regulators, academics, conservationists, watermen, fish farmers and other stakeholders to the same table to develop a regulatory framework that will minimize the potential for environmental impacts while maximizing ecosystem services and profitability."