A group of major Texas oyster companies and a coastal advocacy group are urging the state to close a small bay in Brazoria County amid uproar there over oyster harvesting.
The Texas Outdoor Coastal Council, a nonprofit focused on coastal issues, is gathering signatures for a petition asking the Texas Parks and Wildlife Director of Coastal Fisheries to immediately halt oyster harvesting in Christmas Bay, according to a letter obtained by The Daily News.
Several of the Gulf’s largest oyster companies have signed onto the petition. Those include Prestige Oysters, Hillman Shrimp and Seafood Co., Casterline Seafood Co. and Misho’s Oyster Co., according to a list provided by the group.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department considers bacteria conditions and the maturity and quantity of oysters in an area when determining whether to keep it open, said Lance Robinson, Coastal Fisheries regional director at Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Christmas Bay, near Surfside, was closed to oyster harvesting between 2000 and 2014 because of high levels of bacteria, according to the state health department. The health department reopened the bay to oystering beginning in the 2015 season, a spokesman said.
Oyster industry leaders are calling for a renewed ban on oyster harvesting of Christmas Bay because of its sensitive ecosystem, Prestige Oysters co-owner Lisa Halili said. The area is one of few places in the state with near-pristine water quality and should not be open to commercial fishing, Halili said.
“We’re more than happy to give up this one little sliver of the area if it’s a sensitive ecosystem,” Halili said, adding industry players have been in talks with environmental groups about the bay ecosystem.
Halili insisted the industry’s support is not related to an ongoing controversy in Brazoria County over concerns about damage to grasslands around Christmas Bay, which environmental groups say was caused by some oyster harvesters, she said.
During this public season, which started Nov. 1 and runs through May 1, more oyster harvesters have been working in Christmas Bay, which has created some tensions with recreational anglers there, Robinson said. The increased traffic is likely because other public reefs along the Gulf coast are closed this season, Robinson said.
More than a 100 harvesters have licenses to take oysters on public reefs, Robinson said. Many of the major oyster companies own private leases in the bay but do sometimes purchase oysters from smaller operations.
Prestige Oysters does not harvest in Christmas Bay and hadn’t purchased any oysters out of Christmas Bay in about five weeks, Halili said.
Because the water in Christmas Bay is very shallow and the areas to cultivate oysters are near-shore, many oystermen working in the area have been walking or driving all-terrain vehicles through the grasslands to get oysters, said Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation. Harvesting in the area also was stirring up sediments and disturbing rookery islands, Jones said.
Galveston Bay Foundation intends to ask the state to close Christmas Bay to oyster harvesting, Jones said.
The increased traffic of oyster harvesters also upset recreational anglers who use public boat ramps at Christmas Bay because commercial boaters were tying their boats to the ramps for long periods of time.
The Brazoria County Commissioners Court on March 28 voted to put up signs prohibiting commercial harvesters from using the boat ramps. Because the county owns the boat ramps, the signs can only apply to those areas, Robinson said. The state otherwise regulates oyster harvesting.
Of late, fewer oystermen have been fishing in Christmas Bay, which Robinson said is likely because they have found better places to harvest farther south.
“We’re seeing fewer boats out there but I’d hate to speculate as to why,” Robinson said.