Still rebuilding from a pummeling that Hurricane Ike inflicted two years ago, the Texas oyster industry is being slammed again this year — by even more complex challenges in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It’s not that the oysters themselves were tainted by the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April. But a combination of high prices this summer, weak oyster growth and an even weaker market for oysters — partially caused by consumer concerns over the safety of gulf seafood — has left Texas’ oyster producers with little work this year.
They probably still can find oysters to harvest, but many of the mollusks are smaller than normal. In addition, the state’s biggest oyster resource, Galveston Bay, still has thousands of acres of oyster reefs out of commission because of Hurricane Ike.
But the bigger problem is that producers are having a hard time finding buyers for what they do harvest.
“I’m not sure of the cause. All I know is oysters aren’t moving. People are not eating seafood,” said Buddy Treybig, a 10-year veteran of the oyster industry who owns Arnold’s Seafood Oyster House in Matagorda.
Treybig said he’s cut back to a skeleton crew and is working his processing plant only about half the days he normally would. He’s also limited his boats to harvesting 25 sacks of oysters a day, not even a third of what he’s allowed to take, because he does not want to get stuck with oysters that can’t sell.
Prices have slipped since the start of the oyster season in November. Customers could buy a pint of oysters for $9.50 and a 7-pound container for $55 at Hillman’s Seafood in San Leon this week, its owner said.
“It’s kind of scary,” Treybig said. “A lot of boat owners haven’t seen nothing like this.”
Lance Robinson, regional director of coastal fisheries for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department in Dickinson, called it something of a “perfect storm” of problems for producers, with weak oyster production in Louisiana driving prices up in Texas while warmer weather leading up to the opening of the public oyster harvesting season last month kept Texas oysters from getting as plump as normal.
Demand for oysters also dropped, first because of the recession and then because the oil spill persuaded consumers to look for alternatives to gulf seafood, whether those products had been affected by oil or not, officials said.
Robinson said no oil has been detected in oysters here. Nevertheless, Texas’ oyster industry “basically shut down” shortly after the public season opened in November, Robinson said. But he said more boats may be scouring reefs for oysters this month in hopes that demand will pick up for the Christmas season.
What Texas brings in is important because it is typically the second-largest producer of oysters in the Gulf of Mexico, which Robinson said is the nation’s primary source for oysters.
Louisiana is normally the largest oyster producer, with up to half of the Eastern oysters harvested. Texas is typically responsible for 15 percent to 20 percent of the nation’s Eastern oyster harvest, said Robinson. Pacific and Olympia oysters also are harvested across the country, but not at the level of the Eastern variety.
Texas’ oysters reached a peak value of $19.2 million — the amount paid to boat operators — in 2007, but fell to $8.8 million in 2008, the year Hurricane Ike struck the Houston area, according to data provided by the state. Last year, the total climbed slightly to $9.4 million.
Oysters are harvested from about 2,300 acres of private oyster leases, all in Galveston Bay, and from more than 49,000 acres of public reefs, also concentrated in Galveston Bay but extending south to other bay systems and even the Lower Laguna Madre.
Lisa Halili, vice president of Prestige Oysters of San Leon, which has operations in both Texas and Louisiana, said the industry is crippled now primarily because of unfounded concerns about the safety of gulf seafood.
Upcoming marketing efforts could help dispel some of those fears.