AUSTIN (KXAN) – November to April is the harvest season for golf oysters, and the season has so far begun hard for commercial fishing. Meteorologist Sean Kelly spoke with Zach Olsen of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department about the problems people have.
Olsen is the ecosystem manager for the Aransas Bay system in Rockport in the Coastal Fisheries Division. He explained what is at the center to cause a bad start to the season.
“The greater impact of oyster mortality tends to be precipitation and salinity … we saw a lot of rain all summer, July, August, into September even,” Olsen said.
Most Texas oysters are harvested in our four Central Gulf Coast bays, starting from Galveston Bay. Nearly 70% of oysters harvested in Texas come from Galveston Bay alone. Galveston sees an average of about 12 inches of rain during the summer months. Last season, however, the area far exceeded that by a whopping total near 17 inches.
“We have seen a lot of oyster mortality due to the influx of fresh water. So it starts the oyster season with a lower amount than usual, “said Olsen. Drainage not only changes the salt content, but can carry pesticides and bacteria with it – all inhibitors of oyster growth.
So far this season, TPWD has had to close nearly half of the state’s 29 harvest areas it manages. However, runoff from our wet weather is not the only sin. Storm surge from another active hurricane season, still toppling over damage from previous years, is also to blame.
“Hurricane Ike had a huge impact on the availability of oyster reefs … Hurricanes often cover reefs with sediment. Hurricane Harvey had some impact, especially in the Galveston and Rockport area,” Olsen said.
Harvey dropped over 30 inches of rain in the Houston metropolitan area, and the associated runoff dropped the salinity to near zero, resulting in widespread oyster mortality in Galveston Bay. They are still recovering from Harvey’s influences four years later.
Olsen also said that the nature of fishing for oysters, removing more and more shells, which would otherwise have been a surface area for more oysters to spawn, has a big impact. Space may also be limited as oysters compete with mussels for nutrients.
“The availability of hard structures for these oysters to settle on, oysters need oyster reef so they can settle down and grow,” Olsen said.
TPWD did a lot of preseason work up to the closures. It involved sampling which areas they should open or close for harvest. The process involves pulling a scraper or steel basket behind a boat for a specified period of time.
“Then we pull it up, count and measure the oysters,” Olsen said. “We use it to essentially measure what the oyster population is in a given area, and if it reaches certain thresholds, we have to open or close the area.”
TPWD will continue to reassess its closed areas throughout the season to see if they can reopen at some point. At the same time, the department will continue the work of restoration.
“Parks and Wildlife is involved in the restoration of oyster reefs, where we will actually take shells supplied by commercial oyster fishermen,” Olsen said. “We will replace the shell or other hard materials in the water so that these oysters can settle .. so that they provide a habitat for these oysters.”
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