Opinion: The State Wildlife Board has given itself time to save the oyster beds; they must use it wisely | Opinion

Members of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted this month to postpone any decision to block commercial oyster harvesting in three key bays along the Gulf Coast.

While it’s not a perfect solution, at least it doesn’t smell like rotten fish. Rather, as Commission Chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin put it, the council had simply “stopped the bleeding” of the reef areas.

The controversial and unexpected decision – refusing to permanently close three bays to oyster farmers or designate them as protected areas – gives officials a chance to actually address the issue, or, at least, try to do so.

An American Oystercatcher flies from an oyster bed in Espiritu Santo Bay. State officials have given themselves time to address the problem of overfished oyster beds. Now they have to use that time wisely.

The council relied on an existing “traffic light” policy that limits harvesting from oyster beds to times, like now, when critical reefs are vulnerable. But it leaves the door open to more income for oyster farmers, who depend on bivalve shellfish for their livelihoods, when conditions improve.

Oysters are not only a source of income for those who harvest them, but they are also nature’s water filter, which is why the issue has become so controversial. A single oyster can filter over 2 gallons of water per hour. Multiply that by the thousands of oysters on a reef and you’ll see why they are so valuable and important to a sustainable future.

Oyster farmers need to make a living, though conservationists say that goes against the good of others who like to use the waters of Ayres, Carlos and Mesquite bays. But it is a disagreement that could have an equitable solution.

Parks and wildlife staff had recommended closing all three bays to commercial oyster farmers, noting overwhelming support in a survey of interested parties. Staff argued that the oyster reefs were threatened by overexploitation. At this point, the agency has previously closed oyster beds in Galveston, San Antonio, Aransas and Matagorda bays throughout the 2021-22 oyster season, citing the lack of market-size oysters found when authorities have removed sampling dredges from these areas.

The issue is not one of oyster farmers versus environmentalists. It is not that simple. Both sides have valid arguments and needs.

People have to earn a living and feed their families. And boaters, sport and recreational fishers deserve clean habitat to enjoy the beauty of Texas’ waterways and coasts.

Some solutions to this dilemma found elsewhere include opening up many oyster reefs for harvesting so that no area is overfished and all areas remain sustainable. Another involves the state forcing oyster farmers to reseed their oyster beds. Spent shells could be sterilized and returned to oyster beds, where young seed oysters will find a place to regrow.

Once such practices are in place, their costs do not have to be so high. But, for example, setting up a shellfish recycling program will take time and money. The state, nonprofit environmental groups, and even restaurants and grocers could help with the recycling effort.

By kicking the box, parks and wildlife administrators gave themselves time to find a solution. Now they must not waste this time so that all parties involved can find a positive outcome.

This opinion reflects the views of the editorial board of the Victoria Advocate.


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