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Winning the Shell Game

Recycled shells serve as the breeding ground for future generations of oysters.

By Larry Bozka

Of all marine organisms, perhaps none is as generous as the oyster.

Oyster reefs are the calcified backbones of Texas bays. From shell pads below production platforms to visible outcroppings, oyster reefs are invaluable cues for saltwater anglers. To commercial fishermen and restaurateurs, oysters provide a lucrative cash crop. As for the bays they inhabit, oysters are living purifiers. A single oyster can filter gallons of saltwater a day.

With so many interests dependent upon the health of the state’s oyster fishery, it’s only logical that the resource’s users should do everything possible to bolster its well-being. TPWD’s fledgling Oyster Shell Recovery Program aims to do just that. Lance Robinson, Regional Director for Coastal Fisheries, describes the pilot program as “an effort to put something back.”

That “something” is recycled oyster shell.

Though the project will initially be focused on East Galveston Bay, Robinson and coworkers hope to set the stage for a “reseeding” process that can be expanded elsewhere down the coast.

“With good water quality, sufficient nutrients, the right temperature and the proper balance of saltwater and freshwater, the only other thing larval oyster ‘spat’ need to reproduce is a hard substrate on which to attach. Given those factors,” Robinson explains, “oysters will definitely grow.”

According to the veteran biologist, Galveston Bay possesses all of the above. “That’s why 80 to 90 percent of the state’s oyster production comes from the Galveston Bay system,” Robinson says. “Galveston, Matagorda and San Antonio Bays are the coast’s leading oyster producers.

“Substrate is the limiting factor,” he adds. “The nature of the oyster business has been to harvest the oysters, shuck the meat and then pile up the shell. Although some oystermen return it to the water, most end up selling the harvested shell as roadbed material or calcium carbonate for poultry feed.

“We’re in the process of hiring an oyster restoration biologist who will lead the effort,” Robinson continues. “With permits procured from the General Land Office and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we’ll start with a reef in East Galveston Bay, one that’s currently beneath about a foot of mud and sediment. The plan,” he says, “is to elevate the reef, initially with limestone and then with oyster shell. The fresh, elevated shell will then attract the spat (free-swimming larval organisms that attach to structure during late spring and summer).”

Industry representatives have verbally committed to providing about 10,000 cubic yards of shell for the location, Robinson says. First, however, TPWD will contract to have limestone brought in so that commercial oystermen can then deposit the shell into marked-off areas.

An oyster grows to a legal size of 3 inches in about 18 months. “We may not see reef growth this year,” Robinson notes. “At this point we are basically spreading the base so that the process can occur. We hope to involve not only the oyster industry, but also, down the road, restaurants with oyster-shucking facilities from which we can reclaim shell for reseeding more reefs.

“If this program is successful, it will expand,” he emphasizes. “Again, it hinges on areas that have the optimal amount of freshwater inflow, nutrients and water quality. It’s a delicate balance.

“It was oystermen who actually came to us with this concept,” Robinson says. “The oyster industry is becoming more conscientious about the state of the resource, and anything we can do to foster that stewardship role is positive.”

Few, neither trout fishermen nor oystermen, would argue that a creature as giving as the humble oyster deserves anything less.

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