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Texas Parks and Wildlife delays vote on the proposed closure of 3 oyster bays for harvesting

Oysters on a pier.
Lucio Vasquez
Houston Public Media
Freshly harvested oysters from Galveston Bay.
Freshly harvested oysters from Galveston Bay.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission tabled a proposal to permanently close three bays for oyster harvesting, following roughly four hours of public testimony Wednesday and more than 2,500 written comments.

State biologists and environmental groups say closing the bays is necessary to protect the oysters for the future, but commercial oyster fishermen say it would be a devastating blow to their industry.

"We heard from lots of fishermen today and it's how they make their livelihood," said Chairman Arch "Beaver" Aplin III at the end of public comment. "With the weather that's been thrown to us and the demand for oysters, we're in an unsustainable place and so I think we need to look at this from a bigger picture."

Since the bays have already been temporarily closed for harvesting, Aplin said there isn't a need to rush the decision. He called for the formation of a task force with industry stakeholders to look at the issue more closely for both the bays under discussion as well as for future management of oyster reefs in the state.

"I think, even here today, we don’t really have a grasp of what the metrics are, what the thresholds of success might look like," he said.

The three bays in question are Carlos Bay, Mesquite Bay and Ayres Bay near Rockport. State biologists say oyster harvesting in those areas has increased over the past decade and that those three reefs have shown a low abundance of oysters relative to neighboring bays.

"The ecological importance and sensitivity of these oyster reefs coupled with the historically high harvest pressure and decreasing oyster abundance makes this minor bay complex a candidate for permanent closure from harvest," states the proposed amendment to close the bays.

Oyster reefs in Texas have had trouble rebounding from hurricanes, major flooding events and drought – events that are expected to be exacerbated by climate change.

"This resource is under increasing pressure, not just now but into the foreseeable future, as bays and estuaries across the Gulf are experiencing significant stress,"said Amanda Fuller with the National Wildlife Federation, who testified in support of the closures. "I really want to highlight the important role that oyster reefs play in shoring up and protecting the Texas coast as we encounter elevated coastal erosion rates, sea level rise and extreme storms in the Gulf."

Like Fuller, many speaking in favor of the proposal emphasized the important role that oyster reefs play in the larger ecosystem.

"These reefs are too important to the health of our bays and our ecosystems and cannot sustain themselves under the current level of harvest," said Robby Byers with the Coastal Conservation Association.

But oyster fishermen, wholesalers and restaurant owners who came from across the Texas coast said they disagree with how the state manages the reefs and worry about the financial impact on their industry.

"Closing these bays will have a domino effect that would lead to the uncalculated, unprecedented complete destruction of south Texas commercial oystering," said Mario Rodriguez, whose family owns 30 oyster boats in Port Lavaca.

Felipe Bueno, a fisherman from Galveston, said he too relies on oyster harvesting to support his family.

"We ask you not to close these areas, as many of us depend on this for our livelihoods," he said in Spanish.

Bueno and others from the industryspeaking against the amendment said that closing the three bays will cause boats to overcrowd other areas, inevitably overwhelming those reefs as well. They blamed the state for poor management and said they too care about the reefs.

"We care and want the bays to be prosperous," said Johny Jurisich, an oyster wholesaler in Galveston.

"Oyster fishermen are the farmers of the sea," echoed Tina Cruz from Port Lavaca.

These permanent closures come after the state has already closed 24 of Texas' 27 oyster reefs for the season, which usually runs from Nov. 1 through April 30. Many of the areas have been closed since mid-December.

Aplin, the Texas Parks and Wildlife chairman,said the aim is to come up with a solution before oyster season reopens in November.

"This is not kicking the can down the road," he said. "This is, let’s get it right and gather a little more information."

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Katie Watkins