GALVESTON — This year’s oyster crop in Galveston Bay was already pretty bad. So poor, in fact, that last Wednesday’s announcement that state authorities had closed the bay to shellfish harvesting came at no great loss to Mary Smith, president of Hillman’s Seafood Market in Dickinson.
“It was such a bad oyster season in the first place, we’re glad that they closed,” Smith said. “A lot of the oysters were killed last year because of the water salinity because of the drought.”
She said she was glad to see the season close so that the remaining oysters wouldn’t be taken.
The public oyster harvesting season concludes April 30, and similar bans on harvesting in past years have lasted for weeks, meaning that Galveston harvesters could already have seen a premature end to their season.
For local seafood sellers, that could put a crimp on business.
Smith said she could still sell oysters from other parts of the Texas coast — such as Seadrift Bay — though some loyalists may notice a difference from the normal offering.
“Galveston Bay oysters are just a little bit fatter than ones down south,” Smith said.
The Texas Department of State Health Services announced an indefinite closure of the bay to oystering Wednesday. The department cited an increase in the amount of Dinophysis algae in the bay as the reason for the closure.
The algae can produce an acid that is absorbed by shellfish meat. If ingested, the infected meat can cause a litany of unpleasant problems, including vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and cramping.
The toxin is not considered life-threatening but, unfortunately for locals, it cannot be cooked out.
Recent years have not been kind to the Texas oyster industry. In 2008, Hurricane Ike covered 60 percent of the bay’s oyster reefs with sediment.
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster tarnished seafood in other parts of the Gulf of Mexico. While Galveston Bay was largely unharmed environmentally by the spill, local suppliers said the harm to the reputation of Gulf-produced seafood was almost as damaging
In 2011, the statewide drought reduced the flow of fresh water into the bay, drastically increasing the salinity of the water and turning it into a more welcoming environment for algae like the kind now detected in the bay.
“They’re naturally occurring,” said Lance Robinson, the Upper Coast regional director of the Texas Park and Wildlife Department’s coastal fisheries division.
“These are things that are out there pretty much all the time. They just generally do not multiply in large numbers like we’re seeing.”
Robinson said Dinophysis is different in some ways from the type of algae that causes the more commonly known red tide — it’s not as visible, for instance — but the factors that cause the two are similar.
“They prefer higher salinity waters so typically we don’t see them on the Upper Texas Coast because we have good freshwater inflows,” Robinson said. “With drought conditions, we’re not getting as much water come down the rivers as the whole state undergoes drought.”
More rain and warmer water temperatures should eventually remove the algae, but officials have not offered any predictions about when that would happen.
Until the levels return to a safe state, suppliers will either be going to other sources for their stocks or simply removing the offering from their shelves.
Nello Cassarino, the president of the Galveston Shrimp Co., said his company’s small fish market on Harborside Drive may not go through the trouble of finding a new nonlocal oyster provider.
“We have a philosophy here that all the items that we can grab locally, we will grab locally,” Cassarino said. “Anything that we can land within a 15-mile radius is what we’ll try to kind to stick to. If we can’t have it that way, then we don’t want to mess with it.”