On weekdays, anywhere between 20 and 30 boats pull up to the docks at Prestige Oysters in San Leon, where deckhands unload bag after bag of oysters.
Within 24 hours, the oysters will have been shucked and sent off to a processing plant in Houston, to appear soon after in local restaurants, said Raz Halili, a vice president at Prestige Oysters.
About six weeks into the public oyster season, things are better than many anticipated they would be after Hurricane Harvey in August dumped more than 50 inches of rain in parts of the area.
“My expectation really was that all the oysters would die,” Halili said. “Seeing fishermen able to work and make a living is really kind of a miracle.”
Still, many oysters were killed by the influx of freshwater and it could take several years for the populations to fully recover, said Lance Robinson, Coastal Fisheries regional director at Texas Parks and Wildlife.
And parts of east Galveston Bay remain closed after freshwater flooded and killed from 50 percent to 100 percent of the oysters in certain areas, Robinson said.
“We lost pretty much everything in east Galveston Bay,” Robinson said.
But other regions of the Gulf that had been closed have been reopened. One area in south Galveston Bay had been closed last season because the oysters were of poor quality, Robinson said. But sampling in that area showed the oysters had fared better than expected, he said.
Oyster harvesters had been hoping this season would be much stronger than recent years during which Galveston Bay oyster reefs suffered a number of blows.
Hurricane Ike in 2008 dumped sediment over the floor of the bay hurting the oysters. Then, years of drought caused hyper-salinity. And this year, heavy flooding sent huge amounts of fresh water into the bay, which wiped out many oysters.
Because of that, much of the Gulf oyster crop had been too young to harvest in recent years. Before Harvey, oystermen were hoping oysters in some of those previously closed areas would be mature enough to take, industry insiders have said. Harvey set back progress in some of those areas, particularly east bay, Robinson said.
“It will take a few years for those to rebound,” Robinson said.
But Robinson was hopeful because of history.
In the years leading up to Tropical Storm Claudette in 1979, the oyster industry had been struggling, Robinson said, citing conversations with longtime fishermen. The storm destroyed much of the oyster population, but also killed off many of the parasites and other things that prey on oysters, Robinson said.
Data from the two to three years after Claudette show oyster production went through the roof, he said. He expected the same from Harvey, he said.
“I would guess we’ll see a similar pattern emerge in the next couple of years in Galveston Bay, barring any other big storms,” Robinson said. “But I know that doesn’t necessarily bode well for the industry in the interim.”
Halili, though, was cautiously optimistic, too. For now, there are oysters to meet demand and Prestige Oysters is buying from about 90 boats along the coast, he said.
He was cautious about how the rest of the season might turn out, he said. Because some spots are closed, there could come a time later in the season where the now open areas get closed because all of the marketable oysters have been taken, he said. Though smaller bag limits this season could spread out the season more, he said.
While Harvey had affected the salinity in parts of the bay and caused closures, the resiliency of the popular mollusk had shown, he said. There’s been a lot of arguments about the sustainability of the fishery, he said. His company and others have helped rebuild reefs to keep a healthy population of oysters, he said.
That many oyster did survive the storm, too, was a good sign for the population, he said.
“There’s a fight about the resource, but this hurricane just goes to show how oysters do come back,” Halili said.