Gulf-coast oystermen face hard times as boats lie idle
THE Galveston Bay shoreline where Frank Auzston stands is as hard-worked as the fourth-generation oysterman's hands. The water that laps at his boots is a murky gray, just clear enough to reveal clusters of oysters clamped tightly to each other. Beyond the shore, dappled white with broken shells, stand boats, marine repair shops, and square, elevated houses, bleached and worn, many owned by fellow fishermen.Skip to next paragraph
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``It used to be I had something every season, between oystering, shrimping, and fishing - oysters being the sure money,'' says Mr. Auzston, his blond hair tousled above his ruddy face. ``But now this year we haven't made a dollar since Thanksgiving. Nobody has.''
Normally this would be among Auzston's busiest months, the height of oyster season. But this year Galveston and the rest of the gulf coast's bays and estuaries have been closed for most of the six-month oystering season that began in November.
A ``red tide'' of toxic organisms that struck the coast last year led the Texas Health Department to close all the oyster beds but those in Galveston Bay before the season even began. And within a month after the first oyster was harvested, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife closed Galveston Bay, having determined that the concentration of oyster boats there was causing a serious depletion of the area's oyster stock.
Fortunately for the oyster-fishing families, prospects are good for a full reopening of the gulf soon. The Parks and Wildlife Department says enough oysters will have grown to harvestable size to reopen the entire Texas coast on Feb. 20. Health officials will still be monitoring the gulf for contamination levels, but as of now they consider Galveston and a few other bays safe for harvest.
Still, something as seemingly removed as an inland rainfall alters the levels of pesticides, toxins, and general waste that are carried into the gulf, and can quickly contaminate healthy oyster beds. Lingering hopes among gulf oystermen for at least two months of uninterrupted harvesting could yet be dashed.
The state Health Department has used the same basic guidelines since 1925 to establish when pollution or natural calamities such as the red tide require a closing of oyster fishing. But it is only in the last eight years that Parks and Wildlife has mounted a strict conservation campaign in the state's valuable oyster beds. Department officials say their strategy will help assure that the industry will be around for the children and grandchildren of fishermen like Auzston.
``We've had more closures for oysters in the last four to five years than over the previous 30 years,'' says Gary Matlock, director of fisheries for Parks and Wildlife. ``We've instituted a much more aggressive approach to management of the oysters, and the result is that the value has increased directly.''
More than $8 million in oysters were harvested from Texas bays in each of the last three complete seasons, up from about $1.7 million worth in 1980 (and a low of $888,000 worth in 1979). The size of the harvest has grown to about 5 million pounds annually, or about 10 percent of the total harvested in the United States.
Those figures may provide support for strict management of the oyster beds, but they nonetheless ring hollow for the hundreds of fishermen facing a lean year. Many have had to leave bills unpaid, while some have lost property, including boats.