TEXAS CITY (The Texas Tribune) — The dreary, gray weather on Monday matched oysterman Johny Jurisich’s mood. This time of year, when workers prepare boats ahead of the Nov. 1 start to Texas’ oyster season, used to feel exciting. Now, it felt muted as the industry faced an uncertain future.
Fishermen weren’t playing music, smiling or coating boats with fresh paint. None of them knew if they would make money in the coming weeks.
“They love doing it; that’s why they’re here,” Jurisich said, standing by the docks he owns with his dad and brother. “But it’s hard to love anymore, because it’s just heartbreak.”
Texas oysters have suffered from stronger storms and worsening droughts as the effects of climate change intensify. The state has increasingly closed public harvest areas where it considers oysters too small or too scarce, in an effort to protect them. Last year, the state opened only a small portion of the public reefs. Fishermen crowded into the available areas, catching what they could over a shortened season, then turned to other jobs to pay the bills.
Still, the oysters didn’t recover. When state biologists sampled the public reefs in September and early October, they found enough large oysters to allow harvesting in just one area.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing kind of a similar season to what we saw last year where most bays still have very low abundances of oysters,” said Christine Jensen, Galveston Bay ecosystem team leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The future of the fishery hinges on the success of these temporary closures — a strategy many fishermen argue should be changed — along with attempts by the agency, environmental groups and fishermen to restore the reefs.
Oysters play a critical role in the environment, improving water quality, buffering shorelines against storms and providing habitat for other marine animals. They’re also crucial to the nation’s wild oyster industry: Gulf oysters accounted for 45% of harvested oysters in the country in 2019, according to a federal report.
Boat captains are struggling. When the season in Texas abruptly ended last year, 39-year-old San Leon resident Agustin Martinez harvested oysters in Louisiana, worked a construction job in North Carolina and returned home this year to work at a metal recycling facility. He still came up short.
“I’m stressed,” Martinez said, speaking in Spanish. “We have to pay licenses and fix boats. It is an investment that we have to make if the oyster fishing areas open or not.”
This year, Jurisich and other oyster industry members asked TPWD to delay the start of the season in hopes that small oysters would grow to harvestable size, then the state could later open more areas for fishermen to drag their dredges, collecting oysters. TPWD instead opened eight locations out of 28, saying they couldn’t delay the season because their sampling showed enough large oysters to open — and they would want broader input from oyster fishermen before changing how they manage the oyster reefs.
Juan Gutierrez is bracing for another bad season. On Monday afternoon, Gutierrez, 48, was putting up a light on the deck of his boat at Jurisich’s dock. Like many, he has harvested oysters for decades. Last year went badly for him.
“I think it’s going to be worse,” Gutierrez said of this season.
“Absolutely,” Jurisich said.
Restoration offers a possible solution to growing threats
Oysters were abundant in Texas decades ago, especially in Galveston Bay. But the bivalves rely on specific conditions for spawning and growing. Storms and drought can harm them, as can overharvesting.
Jensen, the TPWD expert, likened oysters to Goldilocks: “They don’t like it too salty, and don’t like it too fresh,” she said.
Hurricane Ike in 2008 buried a whopping 8,000 acres of public reefs in sediment. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 dumped record rainfall over the Houston area and inundated Galveston Bay with freshwater, changing the water’s salinity and killing more oysters.
This year, Texas endured a second consecutive year of drought, also altering the Gulf water’s saltiness.
The compounding problems could prevent the oyster reefs from rebounding like they once might have, said Jennifer Pollack, a marine biology professor who researches oyster reefs at the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
“The oysters are constantly getting knocked down and trying to climb back out of that hole again and something else happens,” Pollack said. “Evidence right now indicates that probably those reefs need more time.”
Many agree the state’s bays lack enough rock or existing reef for oysters to build onto.
The state is planning to rebuild 30 acres of oyster reef in Galveston Bay with funding from the federal COVID-19 relief act, plus approximately 50 acres in Carlos Bay in Aransas County with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Harvey Fishery Disaster Relief Fund.
The state also joined the Nature Conservancy and Galveston Bay Foundation to plant piles of limestone in Galveston Bay where baby oysters could attach themselves. They started building the new reefs in 2021 and finished this year. They designed one area so it won’t be harvested and can instead supply baby oysters that will float to other existing reefs.
TPWD Coastal Ecologist Bill Rodney has been helping to test the theory behind the project by placing tiles on the bay bottom to measure how many baby oysters are floating off the non-harvestable reef. Rodney collected the tiles in October to see if those closer to the manmade reef had a higher concentration of oysters, which would indicate the reef could help populate harvestable reefs they built nearby.
First: A crab trap used for the oyster spat tile experiment. Last: Bill Rodney shows where oyster spat had latched to an old tile used in a previous experiment. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune
A few days later at a state lab in Dickinson, Rodney put the frozen 1-square-foot tiles covered in creatures into a large sink to thaw. With gloved hands, Rodney pulled tile 15 out of its bag and placed it in a tray under a magnifier. He saw tiny worms, bumpy brown barnacles — and 10 baby oysters.
“This is really great,” Rodney said.
He doesn’t worry that oysters will disappear; they’re adaptable, he says. He’s more concerned about the quality and quantity of oyster habitat and the future of the state’s oyster industry. He knows fishermen will have a hard time while the agency works on ways to bring oysters back.
Rodney studied another tile from near the sanctuary reef. This one had fewer baby oysters, called spat, but that didn’t negate his theory yet.
“So far it looks promising,” Rodney said, rinsing it off. “Maybe I’m just being optimistic.”
Industry members fight for a future at stake
Oyster harvesters say the industry is hanging by a fragile thread. Fishermen last year spent a month crowded together to pull oysters from the small number of open reefs before the state started to close them again in December. The season was supposed to run through April 30.
Some harvesters and dealers are taking matters into their own hands. Lisa Halili, co-owner of the family-run Prestige Oyster’s Inc. in San Leon and founder of the San Leon Oyster Festival, is rebuilding a reef that was destroyed during Hurricane Ike with help from The Nature Conservancy in Texas and Texas Sea Grant.
At Rett Reef, oyster shells from Halili’s son’s restaurant, Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House, will be dumped on the Gulf floor, followed by a top coat of crushed concrete and rock to replenish the 10-acre reef. Halili said the reef is non-harvestable, but, like the project Rodney studied, the spat it produces could help natural growth at nearby reefs and contribute to the bay’s oyster population. She hopes that by next spring it will yield results.
“I feel like Rett Reef is going to be a turning point. It’s going to help the industry and the state to be able to work together. That’s all we ask, give us a chance,” she said.
In Texas City, Jurisich, 41, used to focus on oysters; his family’s company, U.S. Sea Products, owns and maintains boats and sells oysters wholesale. But in recent years he has waded into policy issues, starting a group he calls the Texas Oyster Association. About 10 people help plan activities and policy efforts for the group.
Jurisich and others staged protests and attended state regulatory meetings. He’s now part of groups that give input to TPWD. Among his desires: Closing reefs based on harvest amounts instead of sampling, and giving industry members a stronger say in decision-making.
They have had some success. During this year’s legislative session, the oystermen supported a state law that passed to create more chances for people to lease areas for private harvesting or restoration projects. State regulators haven’t announced how that program will work but said staff is working on it.
Oystermen also now are able to bid on doing the work for state restoration projects and informing where future restoration projects should go, said Lauren Williams, resilient coast program director for the Nature Conservancy in Texas.
“There are things that are happening that are movements in the right direction,” Williams said. “It’s just a very complicated situation, and it’s even more complicated because people’s livelihoods and heritage are being impacted.”
Efforts to reduce the number of commercial oyster licenses so far have faltered. The state received more applications than ever — 54 out of 521 total licenses — in the most recent round of its oyster license buyback program that ended in March but didn’t purchase any. Oystermen wanted from $35,000 to $500,000 for their licenses, more than the agency was willing to pay.
Oystermen weather a rocky opening day
For many fishermen such as Mauricio Blanco, the looming oyster season is a storm on the horizon. The 51-year-old fisherman from Port Lavaca worries about making ends meet. The sea is not just Blanco’s workplace, but his livelihood. A family of six depends on his catch.
“I don’t know what we are going to do,” Blanco said in Spanish. “At the end of the day, we have to put food on our tables.”
Blanco said when he feels discouraged it’s his deep love for oyster fishing that keeps him going. But he worries about the future of the industry in Texas and is weighing whether to abandon Texas’ Gulf for more fruitful oyster havens like Louisiana.
“I have always been a romantic whose passion is fishing. What I do fulfills me,” Blanco said.
Blanco did not go out on the opening day of the Texas season.
For those who did on Wednesday, unusually choppy waters marked an ominous start to the season.
They rose in the dark, started their boats and motored into Galveston Bay. The waves rocked boats violently. While eight areas technically were open, only three were expected to have oyster reefs worth dredging.
Captains jockeyed for spots above those reefs before sunrise, which marked when they could begin to drive in circles, dragging their dredges across the reefs.
Father and son Tracy and Justin Woody, who run a company called Jeri’s Seafood that harvests, buys and processes oysters, headed out to survey the scene like they do every opening day. Last year, they counted some 200 boats working close together. This year they saw roughly a third of that, perhaps because of the rough waters and uncertainty over when and how many reefs would open this year.
They didn’t expect everyone to harvest the maximum 30 sacks per day allowed. The strong currents and winds made it harder to dredge. They worried some crews were risking their safety in the weather because they needed the work.
Manuel Perez sorts through oysters, separating them from rock and shells, then prepares to bag them on the first day of the oyster harvesting season in Galveston Bay. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
Approaching a cluster of boats, Justin Woody, 38, stood up and started counting how many sacks of oysters one crew had filled. It was around 10 a.m., meaning the workers had been at it for about two-and-a-half hours, emptying the dredge onto a table and hacking away at small oysters stuck to the big ones they could keep.
“He’s got about 12 sacks,” Justin Woody said.
“That’s good news,” said Jurisich, who was along for the ride.
Later, Tracy Woody, 58, went out to shout at another captain: “How many sacks you got?”
The captain held up all 10 fingers.
In the bumpy brown waters, the countdown had started until the season was over. They didn’t expect it to last long. But these oystermen weren’t giving up yet; they would keep fighting.
“Now it seems like if we don’t do something, the end is coming,” Jurisich said.
“Yeah,” said Justin Woody, seated at the wheel. “If something doesn’t change, this is a dying industry. They’re going to push us out.”
He kept steering the boat ahead.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.