Turning the Tide on Oyster Mariculture in Texas

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Oysters can seem endless in their quantity. Restaurants serve plate after plate of them on the half shell, and in marinas they cluster on bulkheads and moorings like an afterthought. Despite the appearance of abundance, this beloved Texas fishery is in a historic decline.

Dr. Joe Fox, a 40-year veteran of mariculture, thinks the state is overdue for an oyster revolution.

“We used to have hundreds of miles of shell roads and piles of oyster shells three stories high on the shores of Nueces Bay, but production has been sliding and it’s volatile,” said Fox, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) Chair for Marine Resources Development and Professor of Mariculture, Environmental Science, Coastal & Marine System Science.

Destructive fishing practices and a string of natural disasters have led to a steep decline in oyster production in Texas, with the annual harvest plummeting by 41 percent since 2010.

A large percentage of oysters on local restaurant plates come from outside the state – about 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported.

Other coastal states have supplemented their production with oyster mariculture to the tune of $270 million annually – Texas just approved oyster farming in the legislative session that ended in May. Fox is hoping to jump-start the industry and support Texas oyster producers, fishermen and restaurants with the launch of a major new program at HRI.

It’s not just economic – oysters are traditionally harvested from public fishing grounds by dredging, which destroys the sea bottom as it brings up its catch. Reefs can be lost, and so are the benefits they provide as habitat for popular sportfish, protection for the shoreline, and a natural filtration system for coastal waters. Oyster mariculture takes fishing pressure off these natural reefs with oysters grown in cages so that they can be easily removed and harvested. They still provide environmental benefits without the economic damage to the habitat.

Fox secured funding for three new projects: two oyster hatcheries and a demonstration project. These facilities will conduct research and grow oysters, but more importantly, they will help support and train a new Texas workforce.

The largest of these projects will be the Texas Oyster Resource and Recovery Center in Palacios. Funded by the RESTORE Act and environmental fines paid out after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the center is a partnership with Texas A&M AgriLife Research. Researchers will grow oyster larvae to support reef restoration and train a local workforce in oyster cage culture. Associate Professor of Aquaculture Dr. John Scarpa is a Co-principal Investigator on the project.

HRI will also partner with AgriLife to operate a research oyster hatchery in Flour Bluff funded by the Texas A&M University System Chancellor’s Research Initiative, and build a demonstration project of about 180 mariculture cages that will grow oysters in Matagorda Bay with the help of federal fisheries disaster relief money from Hurricane Harvey.

“Texas is way behind the curve, but we have a chance to provide real coastal resilience,” Fox said. “This is an economic driver in other coastal states. There’s also an extremely large benefit to bays and estuaries. It’s a no brainer.”

Additional Information

On May 27, 2019, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 1300 which requires the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to adopt rules establishing a program governing the process of growing cultivated oysters. Before this new legislation, Texas had been the only coastal state in the country that did not engage in cultivated oyster mariculture. The new law is poised to provide a major economic and cultural boost along the Texas coast.

On Wednesday, July 10, the community is invited to the Texas Oyster Aquaculture Summit – A New Industry for Texas. The summit will be held at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, in the University Center, Anchor Ballroom, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event includes speakers from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Del Mar College, Water Street Seafood Co., Harte Research Institute, Texas Parks & Wildlife, Coastal Conservation Association, along with Texas legislators. The keynote luncheon speaker is Dennis Bonnen, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. The summit is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Click here to RSVP.