For Shucks Sake
By Emma Comery
By: Emma Comery Photos By: Lillian Reitz
Even at 4:00 on a Monday afternoon, the Water Street Oyster Bar buzzes with the thrill of leaving the office and the promise of mouth-watering fresh seafood. Plates of mesquite-grilled salmon, shrimp harpoons, and fried calamari drift seductively by as I find my way to the table where Richard Lomax, the President and CEO of the Water Street Restaurants, welcomes me with a handshake and a smile. We are joined by Dr. Joe Fox, professor of Mariculture, Environmental Science, and Coastal & Marine System Science at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi.
Richard orders a half dozen half shell oysters for the table, and between bites, the two men share with me the story of the very creatures we are eating. Specifically, the story of how Dr. Fox and Richard’s father, Brad Lomax, are leading the charge to save the Gulf Coast oyster.
Wait. The oysters are in danger?
Yes, not endangered, but in danger. This is news to me, (though it doesn’t stop me from tossing back an oyster like a little shot of mollusk-y goodness).
Richard walks me through Texas’ oyster history. The world has changed a lot in the past 100 years, but the technology for harvesting oysters is the same that it was at the turn of the 20th century: take a big bucket and drag it along the bottom of the bay. While this is certainly an effective method for dredging up oysters, the process also demolishes the entire reef. “It’s like mowing your lawn with a bulldozer,” Dr. Fox comments wryly.
Case in point: In January 2016, South Dollar Reef in Galveston was harvested for oysters. It took one million dollars to build the mile-long reef … and three days for 20 boats to fish it out completely. In the end, they had $300,000 worth of oysters and one completely demolished reef. A net loss. Sadly, this is not a unique case, but rather the everyday reality of oyster harvesting all along the Texas coast.
Years of such aggressive harvesting and archaic methods have left the Texas Gulf Coast hurting for wild oysters. In fact, the reef area for oysters in Texas has decreased by 80 percent since Texas’ oyster heyday in the 1900s. “All you have to do,” says Dr. Fox, “is look at the bag limits.” Once upon a time, the daily bag limit for oysters was 100 sacks; today it’s down to 50. “There’s just nothing out there.”
This explains why, in recent years, oyster fishermen, vendors, and restaurants have been scrambling to find good local product. Sure, there’s always the option of flying oysters in from another state, but this is the Gulf Coast! From Galveston to Corpus Christi, we have a long and storied legacy of seafood to protect. And, luckily, Corpus has its top people on the job. In 2009, the Harte Research Institute’s Gail Sutton (a former student of Dr. Fox), developed a long-term program to combat reef destruction. “Sink Your Shucks” is the first oyster shell recycling program in the Coastal Bend, and the first program in Texas to reclaim more than 1,000,000 pounds of shucked oyster shells from local restaurants and wholesalers, and return them to the bays. Essentially, the recycled shells seed the waters for new reefs by providing substrates and forming nutrient-rich habitats for fish, crabs, and other organisms, including young oysters, which attach to the recycled shells of their mollusk brethren and grow in abundance.
As a restaurant owner, “Sink Your Shucks” was the answer to Brad Lomax’s prayers. “My dad had a simple business problem,” Richard explains. “He was spending a ton of money throwing away oysters and dealing with the mess. When we started recycling, our dumpster bills went down by 60 percent.”
Not only has Water Street been recycling its oyster shells with HRI ever since, but the program inspired both Brad and Richard Lomax to team up with Sutton and Dr. Fox on another project: legalizing oyster farming in Texas.
Oyster farming, which can be done either by building a bed or suspending net bags above the ground, has been a game-changer in other states where wild oysters have been overharvested. In fact, Texas is the only oyster fishing state that has not legalized oyster farming.
“It goes back to the State of Texas and the state agencies,” explains Dr. Fox. “Most have the attitude that oysters are a natural resource to be enjoyed and harvested by the citizens of the state … they’ve tried to maintain [the water bottom and reefs] as an available natural resource. It’s not that they’re against [oyster farming], they just want to know more about it. There’s no legal framework that allows you to do it.”
“One of the greatest reasons for promoting oyster farming,” he elaborates, “is to give the reefs a break.” Simply put, the oyster industry is not sustainable without incorporating farming. By lessening our reliance on natural reefs, we can give them the much-needed opportunity to grow and revitalize, thereby improving their long-term health and yield potential. Truly, it’s in our best interest to treat these reefs well, especially since they provide invaluable ecosystem services that clean up the bays and estuaries. The average acre of reef provides $30,000 in ecosystem services that we would otherwise need to provide ourselves. Allowing the natural reefs to rebuild would go a long way toward adding that extra sparkle to the “Sparkling City by the Sea.”
The other big reason to legalize oyster farming is increased production and industry expansion. “We have about a million and a half acres of water along our Texas coast in bays and estuaries,” says Dr. Fox. “About half of that is probably reasonable for oyster aquaculture. For oyster aquaculture to double production in the state, we only need 2,000 acres.”
Doubling production would open up the market, offer vendors and restaurants more options, create jobs (wild oyster farming requires days out on the boat; oyster farmers are home for dinner every night), and restore the Texas Gulf Coast’s reputation for unparalleled seafood. Farming also offers control over oyster shape and size, which helps create a better product for the consumer. “The industry has gotten too conglomerated,” Richard Lomax says. “We want to encourage more boutique players.”
It wouldn’t take long. In the wild, it can take seven to eight years for a reef to produce oysters. In an oyster farm, it only takes eight months to get an oyster from seed to market. “We have a competitive advantage with the heat: Hot bays grow oysters fast,” Richard Lomax points out. “We can actually grow oysters twice as fast as the east coast.”
“There’s also the ecotourism aspect,” he adds. “Visit Corpus Christi has been a big supporter, and they think the idea has legs. Plus, I think it’s my dad’s dream to give tours of the oyster farms and show kids how it gets from seed to something you can eat.”
The story they tell me is the nutshell version of the case Dr. Fox, Brad Lomax, and Gail Sutton spent years presenting to countless fishermen, judges, wildlife organizations, grant committees, potential oyster farmers, and local representatives in a years-long effort to garner support for the beleaguered mollusk. That dedication paid off when big-league supporters like the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Coastal Conservation Association jumped on board. Dr. Fox believes the success of oyster farming in other states and the growing body of information on aquaculture also encouraged state agencies to support the project.
In July 2018, Representative Todd Hunter began collaborating with the team to draft legislation, and this past May, the Senate passed SB 682 almost unanimously, legalizing oyster farming in Texas. Now, all that’s left to do is hammer out the rules and regulations for oyster farming, a conversation that will be driven mostly by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. They expect the first farms to start seeding in the fall of 2020.
“We’ve had research scientists, academics, politicians, and regulatory organizations working together with a common cause,” says Sutton in a closing thought. And soon, everyone from residents to tourists will be able to enjoy the benefits of the oyster cause. “From creating jobs to boosting the economy, saving fisheries to improving water quality, there’s something in this for everyone,” Sutton underlines. “Even someone who just wants to eat an oyster on a cracker.”