Jeri's Seafood had six oyster boats out on Galveston Bay transplanting oyster spat last Friday. When oyster manager Tracy Woody got ready to take a launch across the bay to check things out, I asked if I could tag along. "Sure", he said with a bemused look in his eye. It was one of those "careful what you wish for" moments.
The wind was out of the north and the seas were running three feet with four-foot swells. Heading southeast from Smith Point to Dickinson Bay, the nose of the launch plowed into a few waves sending spray over our heads. My shoes were drenched within minutes. It was what Tracy Woody called "a salty day."
When we caught up with an oyster boat, the front of the launch and the back deck of the oyster boat were see-sawing up and down creating a five foot difference. When the oyster deck was low, Tracy jumped. I waited for another see-saw cycle and somehow managed to get aboard with my camera. As the boat lurched and rolled, I grabbed whatever I could to steady myself, banging my poor camera around mercilessly.
The decks of the oyster boat were covered with four feet of rocks. Every year, Jeri's dumps tons of river rock on the oyster lease in Dickinson Bay. This area of Galveston Bay is very high in salinity, which provides good conditions for oyster reproduction. After the spawning season in early summer, tiny oyster larvae sink to the bottom looking for a hard surface where they can attach. So the river rocks gets covered with tiny oysters.
But as the spat grow, they become susceptible to predators, which also thrive in high salinity. To protect next year's oyster harvest, Jeri's dredges up the spat-covered rocks and moves them to another oyster lease in the East Bay closer to salt marshes and brackish water inflow. The increased salinity of Galveston Bay continues to threaten the state's largest oyster harvesting area. I hate to wish a tropical storm on anybody, but we are going to need a big rain event sometime soon to get the oyster fishery back on track.
The salty water allows the primary oyster predators called oyster drills to thrive. The crew of the oyster boat sorted through the rocks on deck and removed as many oyster drills as possible—no sense transplanting the predators, too. The sea snails were collected in a bucket on deck. Texas oystermen used to throw the drills away, while Louisiana oystermen have always considered them a delicacy.
Most of Louisiana's oysters are produced on leases. Louisiana oystermen pick up seed oysters in public waters and "plant" them on their leases. By contrast, most of the oyster reefs in Galveston Bay are wild. In a season like this one, the oyster drills are having a feast, and there is nothing anyone can do about it under current Texas law. There is a moratorium on new oyster leases in Galveston Bay, so no new oyster cultivation is coming on line. And there are no oyster leases anywhere else in the state.
Oyster lease–owners practice a kind of oyster cultivation that not many oyster lovers ever hear about. So I'm glad I braved the high seas so I could fill people in on what Texas oystermen are doing to cope with the salinity problem.
Heading north and west, back across the bay to Smith Point, the swells were huge. I tucked the camera in the waterproof box under the windshield and held on for dear life. We were all totally drenched when we got back. Luckily, Jeri and Ben Nelson had a large pot of oyster stew ready to warm us up. I'll share the recipe tomorrow.
And next time I decide to go out to check on the oyster fishery, I will make sure it's not "a salty day."