Energy & Environment

Texas oyster season starts with more than half of the state’s reefs closed

Texas oysters have had a hard time rebounding from the hurricanes, drought, and heavy rainfall that have impacted them over the past decade.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Johny Jurisich measures a freshly harvested oyster on March 14, 2022.

Tuesday marks the start of Texas' commercial and recreational oyster season, but the bulk of the state's oyster reefs are already closed for harvesting. This follows last year's season during which the majority of reefs were closed by mid-December, leading to a clash between industry stakeholders and state wildlife officials over how to manage the resource.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) closes reefs if samples come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters overall. The idea is to give oysters time to recover and repopulate.

This year, 20 of the state's 29 oyster harvesting areas are closed for the start of the season on November 1.

"What we as an agency have tried to do at the start of this season, with some of these thresholds, is to find a balance between understanding the economic hardship that this causes, but also doing what’s best to conserve the oyster population for the future," said Christopher Steffen, a natural resource specialist with TPWD.

Oysters grow about one inch a year, and have to reach three inches before they can be legally harvested. Steffen said though there weren’t enough oysters above market size in their samples to open the reefs, the samples showed oysters have been recovering.

"We’re pretty fortunate in the sense that we do have quite a bit of undersized oysters, which is good for the future," Steffen said. "We are seeing a lot of spat, which are the small oysters that settle on the substrate. And then some of the spat leftover from last year that’s grown into that two to three-inch size range."

Oysters are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, and Steffan said the drought in much of the state could put further pressure on them in the coming months.

In the past decade, Texas oysters have endured multiple hurricanes, drought, and heavy rainfall.

"It just takes time for those populations to rebound," said Steffen, adding that they serve important ecological functions, such as preventing shoreline erosion and filtering water.

All of the closures have been putting pressure on those in the oyster industry who say it's hurting their livelihoods.

Alex Gutierrez has been an oyster fisherman for 35 years and said he used to look forward to passing the business off to his son. Now, he's not sure it's possible for his son to be a second-generation fisherman.

"I think I'm going to be the first one and the last one," he said.

Gutierrez said with so many reefs closed he worries too many boats will gather on just a few reefs, overwhelming those spots as well and forcing them to close.

"What's going to happen when you see 100, 150 boats, in one little area where there's not a lot of reefs?" he said. "I feel like we’ve been set up again."

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission is also supposed to make a decision later this week on the potential permanent closure of three bays near Rockport. The decision was tabled in March after TPWD received thousands of written comments and hours of public testimony on the issue.