Texas oyster industry struggles as state reefs close for harvest – Houston Public Media

Oyster farmer Johny Jurisich empties a dredge full of oysters onto his boat on March 14, 2022.

At Johny Jurisich’s family wharf in Texas City, more than a dozen empty oyster boats with names like Sunshine and Captain Fox float lazily in the marina on a recent Monday morning – an eerie sight for what is normally peak oyster harvesting season.

On a Monday morning, in this beautiful weather, they would all be there (in the bay). It would be an empty marina,” said Jurisich, whose family owns wholesale company US Sea Products and has worked in the oyster business for generations.

Nearby, at Misho’s Oyster Company in San Leon, mariachi music echoes through an empty chipping room, treadmills at a standstill. Only a few dozen bags of oysters line what would normally be a full freezer room.

Currently, 21 of the state‘s 27 harvest areas are closed, with three more areas scheduled to close Tuesday. The season normally runs from Nov. 1 to April 30, but many areas have been closed since mid-December — a move the state says is necessary for future sustainability.

But those working in the oyster sector worry about the sustainability of their industry and their livelihoods – and it has sparked a clash between state officials and oyster farmers over how the resource should be managed. .

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“It cost me a lot actually,” Jurisich said. “I started doing it right out of high school. So I mean, that’s all I’ve ever done.”

Others in the industry are also feeling the pinch.

Alex Gutierrez, owner of a few oyster boats and oyster fisherman for 35 years, said he typically hires between 10 and 15 people to work with him each season. But recently he draws on his savings and does not think he can pay for the annual maintenance of his boats.

“There’s just no money to spend on boats, we don’t make money,” he said. “And you don’t want to spend whatever little savings you might have and then have empty pockets.”

Oyster farmer Johny Jurisich talks about the Texas oyster reef closure on March 14, 2022.

The Gulf Coast region produces 45% of the country’s $250 million oyster industry, according to NOAA Fisheries. In Texas, industry contributes approximately $50 million to the state economy.

The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife decides when to close harvesting areas using a traffic light system that went into effect in 2015. If samples taken by state biologists come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters in general, the agency closes the area. .

Jurisich and others in the industry disagree with how the state collects samples and also with the system itself. They say that closing certain bays forces all boats into just a few areas, inevitably crushing those reefs as well.

“We think it’s been somewhat abused, and just mismanaged and the data is skewed,” Jurisich said. “It forces too many boats into small areas and then upsets recreational anglers.”

Christopher Steffen, a natural resources specialist at Texas Parks & Wildlife, said the agency takes samples based on where harvesting is taking place.

“If an area is heavily fished and there’s a lot of fishing pressure, then we’ll go back and resample that area,” he said. “If it’s below the threshold, then that area may close in response to the decline in oyster numbers.”

TPWD says the closures are necessary to give the oysters time to repopulate. Oysters prevent shoreline erosion and help filter water, but unlike fish, they cannot swim to escape poor conditions.

While it’s unusual to have so many closures, Steffen said it’s also consistent with trends the agency has seen in oyster populations.

That’s because Texas oysters have had a tough decade, enduring hurricanes, floods and drought, said Jennifer Pollack of the Harte Research Institute.

“Oyster reefs are really not able to recover from the things that we see happening to them,” Pollack said.

Johny Jurisich measures a freshly harvested oyster on March 14, 2022.

Throughout the Gulf Coast region, it is estimated that 50 to 85% of the original oyster reefs have disappeared, according to a Nature Conservancy report.

In Galveston, Hurricane Ike in 2008 was particularly devastating, destroying more over 6,000 acres of oyster habitat there, according to TPWD.

We have all these disturbances that are pushing the reefs back, we have the harvest going on, which is probably keeping them at maybe a lower level of oyster abundance in the bay,” Pollack said. “They just can’t ever come back up, so they’re a little less resilient the next time something happens.”

Many of these conditions – droughts, more rainfall – are only expected to be exacerbated by climate change.

Beyond the temporary closures, Texas Parks & Wildlife is also expected to vote Thursday on the permanent closure of three bays near Rockport.

Oyster fishers like Antonio Ayala fear this could push the industry even closer to the brink.

“They are punishing us instead of helping us,” Ayala said in Spanish.

Like Oysterman Alex Gutierrez, Ayala said he also had to dip into his savings just to pay the bills. He’s thinking about finding another job, but after 30 years of harvesting oysters, that’s all he knows.

“Nobody wants to hire an old man,” he said.

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