Oyster Bay Closures, a 25 News Now Extra

“We all have one common goal - and that's the good of the bay the good of the reefs and the oysters. Just how we get there is where a difference of opinions are,” says Curtis Miller, owner of one of the last few family owned seafood stores in the Crossroads.

For Curtis Miller oysters are one of the most versatile meals, saying you can fry them, boil them, BBQ them, or just eat them raw right out of the bay. Although they are a tasty treat to many, to some oysters are more than that, they’re a livelihood, and for Miller it’s a family tradition and something he’s known all his life.

”At a young age, probably 10-years old, when the tide would go out I was out there picking up oysters and shucking them with the old hickory butcher knife for neighbors and friends and all that. I was in the oyster business pretty young on my own,” says Miller.

Miller has owned and operated his seafood store, Miller’s Seafood in Port Lavaca for over 30 years, selling shrimp and fish caught locally, but his most popular item – oysters.

But after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shut down the majority of the oyster bays, oyster production has plummeted. Miller is worried about the effects this will have on the industry. His oyster shucking house would have normally been full of workers and oysters, now due to the extremely low levels of oyster production, it sits empty, along with the port throughout this past oyster season.

“They will come back on their own. Oysters are very resilient. They don’t need this micromanagement that Parks and Wildlife is trying to put on the reefs. They’ll take care of themselves, and the fishermen do our part in helping the reef grow, by keep them cultivated,” says Miller.

That’s the point of contention – whether to keep the bays open or closed, and Miller says in his experience in oystering that fishing and cultivating the bays actually helps the bays thrive.

“Oysters have to be cultivated. Just like a farmer has to cultivate his crop in the field, we need to cultivate those oysters crop out in the bays, because it has just a certain lifespan. Before you know they start regenerating. We disagree with their management plan of leaving the reefs dormant and that’s a bad thing in our opinion,” says Miller.

When dormant oysters are more susceptible to disease he says, and with oysters filtering about 50 gallons of water a day, if they die off it in turn can cause a bay to essentially die.

Zachary Olsen is the Ecosystems Leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for Aransas Bay and has helped with the coastwide oyster management and says the closures are necessary for the future of the oyster populations and that fishing the bays takes out natural habitat the oysters need to grow.

“Really what a dredge is doing is removing oysters and removing structure from those reefs and it’s really that structure that that other oysters settle on, other oysters need to survive and grow,” says Olsen.

Oysters need the right environmental conditions to thrive, and after substantial rainfall the past few years it raised the salinity level too high in some areas, causing oyster die off and prompting the department to close bays due to low levels of market size oysters in some bays.

“Going into the season we ended up closing a lot of areas to harvest to begin with which really concentrated a lot of that effort and then resulted in us continuing to check and close areas as they kind of fell below that threshold of closure the number of market size oysters,” says Olsen.

Olsen said it’s happened in the past, but this year was one of the worst, which is why all but 2 of the state’s 27 harvesting areas were closed, which concentrates all the oystermen to the remaining bays, furthering frustration and sometimes leading to overfishing. One bay that could be permanently closed is the mesquite bay, due to its fragile ecosystem and the important role oysters play there.

“Just because of life history of a lot of different estuary organisms that are spawned in the Gulf and moved in the estuary, those habitats that are in that immediate vicinity of those Gulf passes can be really valuable. So, because of that increased oystering pressure in that area and because of that unique and valuable habitat there we made a proposal to close that area permanently to harvest,” says Olsen.

Miller says however that mother nature knows best.

“God knew what He was doing when he created oysters and estuaries. Fish are the same way, fish give off millions of eggs every year and man will never be able to duplicate what nature is already doing,” says Miller.

Miller got approval to put back oyster shells back into the bays, to assist in building back up the reefs, a reminder that those for and against the closures have a common goal, to see the oyster bays thrive.

“We all have one common goal – and that’s the good of the bay the good of the reefs and the oysters. Just how we get there is where a difference of opinions are,” says Miller.

Texas Parks and Wildlife is creating a committee brining in stakeholders from the industry side, research and conservation, the business side, fisher and oystermen, and community members to allow everyone a seat at the table to come up with some sort of solution or compromise.

November 1 is the deadline, the same day that oyster season and the bays open back up in Texas.