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Texas Muscles in on Oyster Farming

Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1300 into law as the 85th Texas Legislative session came to an end on Memorial Day 2019. Written by Corpus Christi State Rep. Todd Hunter, the bill allows Texas to begin developing oyster farms. Texas was the only state in the United States that did not allow oyster farming.

Texas has a new industry. Oyster farming will be legal in Texas as of September 1 now that Gov. Greg Abbott has signed House Bill 1300 into law. The bill by Coastal Bend Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), includes Texas in a growing industry that state law historically prohibited. Texas was the only coastal state in the United States that did not allow oyster farming.

Hunter has scheduled a summit on the subject from 8 AM to 3 PM Wednesday, July 10, for those interested in the business of oyster farming. The Texas Oyster Aquaculture Summit, which will be held in the Anchor Ballroom at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, 6300 Ocean Drive, is free and open to the public, although registration is required.

Currently, commercial oyster aquaculture rakes in $173 million a year nationwide, according to NOAA figures. Add in the harvest of wild oysters, and the figure jumps to $217 million a year.

The Texas portion of that has been shrinking over the years due to hurricanes and years of drought followed by too much rain. In 2008, Hurricane Ike wiped out half the oyster population in Galveston Bay, the state’s most profitable oyster fishery. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey just about finished off the industry.

Only allowed to harvest from natural reefs, the Texas oyster industry is also hurt by the short season: November 1-April 30. When waters are warm, wild oysters spawn, which turns the meat mushy and undesirable.

Farmed oysters are a sterile variety called triploids that do not spawn and can be harvested year-round. They are fatter and more consistent in size than wild oysters, too, while still retaining that distinctive Texas Gulf Coast flavor.

The Texas Gulf Coast will reap environmental as well as economic benefits, according to supporters of the bill. Oyster farms will join natural reefs in filtering saltwater, helping prevent coastal erosion and protecting wildlife habitat.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has started developing the rules and regulations for operating oyster farms in the state. Working with the Department of State Health Services, the General Land Office, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Texas Department of Agriculture, TPWD will license growers and develop consumer safety requirements.

Despite the jumpstart — the governor signed the bill into law even before the Legislature adjourned on Memorial Day — it will most likely take until 2021 before the first farmed oysters are shucked in a restaurant. Once a farm is set up, it takes eight to nine months for the oysters to develop the proper eating size and quality.

Farmed oysters are grown in cages suspended on poles. The cages float in the water and are manually rotated to optimum conditions. The final product is a meaty oyster grown in a teacup-shaped shell.

The Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has applied for a $6.6 million grant to set up an oyster resource and recovery center in Palacios, just north of Port O’Connor. Along with providing oyster aquaculture training, the center will produce young oyster larvae for reef restoration.

According to the research center, Texas has about 1.5 million acres of water that could be used. Only about 2,000 acres in production would double the state’s current harvest.

As it develops potential areas for farming, TPWD said it will take into account other uses of the water that are not always visible from the surface: pipelines, existing wild oyster reefs, recreation, and shipping areas.

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