Gulf of Mexico
An oyster cage used in oyster farming. (Photo: Harte Research Institute)

A new Texas law is on the side of oyster farming and A&M-Corpus Christi is helping

It is a rare opportunity to be part of launching a new marine industry on the Texas coast, but thanks to state Rep. Todd Hunter, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Texas Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott, it is about to happen.

HB 1300 and SB 682, passed unanimously by the Legislature, allow for the first-time development of oyster mariculture in Texas coastal waters. Until now that was illegal, but no longer. Our fellow Gulf states have a significant head start, producing oysters from the likes of Murder Point and Point aux Pins in Alabama; Beauregard Island, Louisiana; and Pelican Reef, Florida, to name a few. Texas oyster farms will have to carve out a place in this growing market. Gov. Abbott has set the mark — oysters in cages in the water by 2020.

So why is the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi so involved in developing this industry? Because it fits our vision of an ecologically and economically sustainable Gulf of Mexico. The development of a viable and competitive oyster mariculture industry not only creates jobs and economic growth for our hard-hit coast, it could have a major conservation benefit that may not be so obvious at first glance.

The use of dredges to take oysters from Texas public reefs is a very destructive fishery, especially when hurricanes have already destroyed or damaged so many reefs. Oyster boats concentrate their efforts on the remaining productive reefs, like those in Aransas and Copano bays, and in short order they are flattened and scattered, their ecological integrity lost. A functioning oyster reef cleans the water; their structure protects against storm surge; and they support economically valuable sportfishing.

Oyster reefs are too valuable to mine for food. Environmental organizations like Building Conservation Trust and the Texas Nature Conservancy have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring reefs only to see them destroyed once open to harvest. Oyster mariculture offers a viable alternative that can provide oysters of desired size, shape and even flavor to restaurants on demand and year around. Oyster farming offers an opportunity for the industry to shift from destructive dredging to a more sustainable, profitable and conservation-friendly industry.

The launching of oyster mariculture in Texas offers the chance to do it right, learn lessons from other states and countries and ensure that our industry is one that is economically viable and environmentally friendly. HRI has built a team to make this a reality.

Dr. Joe Fox, an aquaculture expert with decades of experience and our new Chair for Marine Resource Development, has been at the heart of this effort, working tirelessly with legislative and business leaders like Todd Hunter and Water Street Inc. restaurant operator Brad Lomax (kudos to all three for their extraordinary energy and dedication). Doing everything from helping draft legislation to experimenting with different cages to hold oysters, Joe has been constantly on the move to make it a reality.

Dr. Jennifer Pollack, our new chair for Coastal Conservation and Restoration, is one of the Gulf’s leading experts on oyster reef ecology and conservation.

HRI Associate Director Gail Sutton, known affectionately as the “Mother Pearl” of oyster shell recycling for her efforts in running the institute’s Sink Your Shucks Oyster Recycling Program, recently exceeded two million pounds of shell converted to new oyster reefs.

And HRI Chair for Ecosystems of Modeling Dr. Paul Montagna knows more about oysters and freshwater than anyone.

As the one-time head of Coastal Fisheries at Texas Parks and Wildlife, I at least know where find the best tasting Texas oysters!

Many challenges will face this infant industry, and it will be the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s responsibility to provide a framework that will allow the industry to hit the ground running. HRI’s team of scientists and experts will play an important role in helping the agency to meet that challenge. Where to base oyster farms; how to deal with genetic and other ecological issues; and even training potential farmers on how to do it right — these will be some of the areas that HRI will assist as the industry develops right before our eyes.

Texas is well positioned to launch this industry because of our healthy coastal ecosystem and miles of coastline. HRI’s Texas Coast Report Card gave our coast an overall score of B-. The Coastal Bend did a bit better, a solid B. Large oyster growing corporations around the nation are now eyeing Texas as a place to expand.

I hope the state can grow its own industry. That should be our goal. To do that, we will all have to work together to ensure both economic and environmental sustainability. Fortunately for Texas, we have the leadership, the science and drive to do it right.

Larry McKinney is the senior executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

See Caller-Times article . . .