In late May Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1300 into law, legalizing cultivated oyster mariculture—farming—in Texas, the last coastal state to do so. What’s in store for the industry, and for oyster lovers? We turned to the pros to find out.
Why is Texas last to the party?
We haven’t needed to farm oysters because we have a viable wild-oyster industry. The Gulf Coast—primarily Texas and Louisiana—produced 51 percent of all oysters in America in 2017, and the 2018–19 wild-oyster season was the strongest in several years.
But the resource isn’t infinite. In fact, over the past decade Texas has lost a good portion of its natural reefs—those in Galveston Bay alone have decreased by more than half—thanks to both acts of God and overfishing. Restoration efforts are underway, but they’ll take decades, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to complete. Which is why in 2017 proponents from Texas A&M, the Texas Restaurant Association, the Coastal Conservation Association, and elsewhere began working with legislators and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to draft a bill that would legalize oyster farming.
“The aquaculture law was designed to give the natural reefs a break from fishing,” says Joe Fox, chair of marine resource development at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute, which seeks scientific solutions for conservation in the Gulf. “HB 1300 just gives people more options. You don’t have to derive all the fishing from reefs.”
How will the farms work?
As of now the TPWD has a year to adopt a set of rules for oyster farming in Texas. Starting in September 2020, farmers will lease “water columns”—exactly what they sound like, they’ll extend from the surface to the bottom of a given body of water—in state waters along the coast, including in Galveston Bay, via a bidding system.
TPWD is trying to gauge demand before announcing how many acres of public waterway will be put up for lease. The hope is that smaller local operators will become part of the new industry, but it’s hard to say how many will come on board. First-time farmers will likely have to spend between $60,000 and $100,000 to get started on a single acre, and the enterprise itself is labor-intensive and risky, subject to factors such as flooding, drought, even theft. Still, the potential rewards are great: A one-acre plot could produce roughly 100,000 oysters in a year.
What’s the difference between farmed and wild oysters?
Farmed oysters will be grown for pearl, shell, and the half-shell market—for raw consumption, mostly at restaurants. They’ll be the same species as our wild ones, crassostrea virginica, but cultivated in manmade structures resembling cages, instead of growing on natural reefs. Both types will be legally harvestable at a three-inch size, and, no doubt, delicious with an ice-cold beer. “A wild oyster that is harvested and destined for the half-shell market and one grown on a farm destined for the half-shell market—there really is no difference,” says Lance Robinson of TPWD.
But there is a reason farmed oysters are often called “boutique oysters.” Produced in state-controlled hatcheries, they have three chromosomes instead of two, making them sterile. With no need to spend energy on reproducing, they grow twice as fast as wild oysters, and stay fat year-round. They’re usually cleaner—turned in a barrel, which rids them of barnacles and sponges—and plumper, with deeper cups and thicker shells. All of which adds up to essentially hand-crafted oysters, with a prettier presentation at the raw bar—and a more expensive dozen.
Hmm. Is this all a marketing ploy?
Virginia’s Misty Points? Alabama’s Murder Points? Both are crassostrea virginica, just like Texas oysters, and both are popular branded boutique oysters with price tags to match. Epicureans claim each has its own briny merroir, akin to a wine’s terroir, and because each is cultivated in a specific way, it has its own look. Locally there have been attempts to name wild oysters harvested from historic locations, including Hannah’s Reef and Pepper Grove Oysters in Galveston Bay, but branded farmed Texas oysters might be an easier sell. “We’re behind the curve,” Fox says. “We need to start developing an identity.”
So, should Texans be excited?
Absolutely. The Harte Research Institute estimates that farmed oysters will soon bring in $2 million a year in Texas. They’ll help keep our bays clean and reduce stress on our natural reefs. They could even bring in tourists one day, like the oyster farms on the East Coast, which attract foodies seeking out new bivalves to try. “That’s an angle we’re looking at, bringing in the community and giving a tour, like a wine vineyard,” says Raz Halili, owner of Prestige Oysters, who plans to give farming a try. As for whether we’ll be able to taste the difference between boutique oysters and those dredged from public reefs? We’re certainly willing to do all the taste-testing required to find out.