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.

``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.

``My daddy used to tell me, `Baby, if you've got a boat, you've got the bay, so you can always feed your family,''' says Mary Jane Maddox, a young mother of two whose husband learned the fishing business from her family. ``That's just not true now.''

Mrs. Maddox says her infant son had to go without formula for several days before the family started receiving foodstamps. Recently, all family purchases other than food have been at the second-hand store, she says.

Malcom Maddox says his biggest concern now is that he won't have the money he needs to prepare for the spring shrimping season. ``I have to be able to rig up my boat and buy my [shrimping] license by the end of February,'' he says. ``That's $189.75, but if I don't have that, I might as well put up the boat.''

The state is considering declaring a state of emergency in affected areas to make low-interest loans available.

Bay closures are not the only problems the oystermen here face. Pollution presents a long-term threat to their enterprise. The port of Houston, one of the busiest in the country, is located at the head of Galveston Bay, the major oyster producer in Texas. More than 20 percent of the state's population lives within 50 miles of the bay's shores.

In addition, a reef-leasing program created by the state legislature permits leaseholders to transplant oysters from polluted public reefs to their private leases in clean waters. The program promotes a larger oyster harvest, but oystermen who cannot afford the leases say it favors those fishermen who are already better off or who have ties to legislators.

Many oystermen say they would prefer to see the contaminated oysters transferred to clean public reefs. But according to Mr. Matlock, the program can only work with private leases because the contaminated oysters, which must be closely monitored, would not be easily controlled in public waters.

The commercial fishermen also find themselves up against the state's huge and influential sport fishermen's lobby, as well as a growing number of out-of-state fishermen who are finding that more restaurants and food fanciers are favoring the Galveston Bay oyster.

Yet some of the oystermen's difficulty stems from their traditional independence and lack of political coordination. Unlike other commercial fishermen, Texas's oyster harvesters have no lobbying organization. ``We tried that for a while,'' Auzston says, ``but the money we put in wasn't getting us too far, so that's dropped off.''

His wife, Lonnie, has recently begun meeting with the wives of other fishermen. The women help provide food, clothing, and information about social services to the hardest-hit families, but the also are trying to influence the state's management of the bays.

Parks and Wildlife is determined to resist attempts to place short-term harvests above the long-term interests of the oyster industry, however.

Matlock and others point to the experience of the Chesapeake Bay oyster reefs, where oyster harvests have fallen from more than 10 million bushels a year in the late 1800's to around 2 million bushels a year now. Studies have shown that, more than pollution, it was overharvesting, ineffectual conservation efforts, and overriding political pressures that led to the Chesapeake Bay's decline.

``I realize that the regulating we do causes hardship and understandably makes some people angry,'' Matlock says. ``But our mandate is to make sure there are oysters in these bays to harvest in the years to come.''

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