Texas oyster season has opened, meaning licensed fishermen can legally harvest oysters on public reefs approved by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department through April 30.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, two sections of Galveston Bay -- shellfish harvesting areas TX 4 and TX 5 -- are closed to oyster harvesting. That means dredging for oysters in these areas is strictly forbidden and punishable by a penalty.
"Those closings are based on samples collected by parks and wildlife showing a low abundance of legal-sized oysters," said Lisa Halili, a partner in the family business Prestige Oysters of San Leon, one of the state's largest oyster operations.
Legal-sized oysters must measure at least 3 inches at the largest length of the shell. Harvesting oysters smaller than legal size is prohibited for good reason, Halili told the Galveston County Daily News .
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"It's a management closure, not a closure for health-related reasons," she said. "The oysters are too small for sustainability. It's part of parks and wildlife's management program."
Public beds are monitored by the state entity for health, population and size, and immature oysters are left to grow to legal size to spawn and repopulate the reef, according to department guidelines. Over-harvesting or harvesting of oysters smaller than legal-size is a leading cause of loss of oyster reefs, a serious problem in Galveston Bay over the decade after Hurricane Ike when nearly all oyster beds were suffocated by excessive silting and debris in the bay.
Restoring oyster beds has been expensive and painstaking, especially with excessive rain events of the past few years, including Hurricane Harvey, that flushed too much fresh water from Houston and other northern areas into the bay, disturbing the delicate salinity required for good oyster health, according to oyster scientists.
The oyster beds of Galveston Bay are critical to local and state economies, contributing the lion's share of oyster production to an industry estimated to be worth $3 billion a year to the state of Texas, said Tom Harvey, parks and wildlife spokesman.
Their value beyond income to fishermen, distributors and processors and sales to food purveyors and diners is immeasurable, scientists and environmentalists attest.
Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they filter water for food, leaving it cleaner; their reefs provide habitat for fish, crabs and other marine wildlife; and their stacked shells or reefs stabilize shorelines, acting as breakwaters in open bodies of water like Galveston Bay, reducing coastal erosion.
Halili, along with her husband, Johnny, and son Raz, serves on the Oyster Advisory Workgroup, commercial oyster fishermen and dealers who, with guidance from parks and wildlife, have established criteria based on the abundance of legal-sized oysters and the percentage of small oysters for determining when an area should be closed.
"It's a red-light, green-light program," she said. "Yellow is cautionary. It means either parks and wildlife didn't have time to get it sampled, or they'll go back during the season to check it out.
"There are some areas they could close or open at any time during the season, depending on the percentage of legal-sized oysters found in a particular area."
Fishermen are urged to check in with the department regularly to determine which areas remain open or closed.
In recent legislative sessions, harvesting offenses and penalties have become more clearly defined, especially when it comes to harvesting too small oysters or fishing in closed areas.
"If you go in there and they catch you, the first two tickets are a Class C misdemeanor. The second time it goes to a Class B, and the third time it goes to a Class A," she said.
Penalties range from a $25 to $500 fine for a Class C offense to license suspension, $500 to $4,000 in fines and/or one year in jail for a Class A offense.
"With new control measures in place, I'm hoping it will help us," Halili said. "If the state's going to all this trouble and wants an area to sit for a while and grow, I support that."
While the state is working to restore lost oyster reefs and carefully monitoring harvesting practices, commercial fishermen are limited to harvesting no more than two bags, 110 pounds each, per person per day, and to dredging for oysters only five days a week, Monday through Friday.
That makes it tough to make a living when the weather doesn't cooperate, sometimes forcing fishermen to go out in dangerous conditions to meet their quota, Halili said.
"We tell them, hey guys, it's not worth it," she said.
These fishermen serve an important purpose in preserving the oyster bed ecosystem when they do their job legally and properly, she said.
"We've had extremely high tides this year creating a lot of silt on reefs," Halili said. "When they dredge, they're sweeping off the dirt and debris that has sat on top of these reefs for six months.
"If they never fished, silt would just keep piling up, like dust piling up in your house if you don't sweep."