Oyster harvesters unload sacks of the popular food along the Rockport bay.
Oyster harvesters unload sacks of the popular seafood as the industry becomes an economic driver for the city of Rockport post Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In Rockport, the six-month oyster season has just ended. During those final days, oyster harvesters were still working not far from the harbor where oyster reefs appear as long murky ribbons extending to the horizon just beneath the surface of the shallow, green waters of Aransas Bay.

All around, tricolor herons and roseate spoonbills were feeding and men on the oyster trawlers hammered at their catch of craggy oysters scraped from the reefs. Returning to the dock, they unloaded heavy sacks of their daily limit for seafood brokers to fill their trailers for delivery to restaurants all along the coast.

As the season ends, another begins, because it’s also the start of what Rockport leaders hope will be a busy tourist season for this seaside fishing and birding town that has been in recovery mode since Hurricane Harvey belted the coast in 2017.

Though more than a quarter of the county’s structural value was completely lost to 13 hours of hurricane-force winds, homes have been rebuilt, businesses and restaurants are now open, and the hotel lights are coming on.

The anticipation was on full display on a recent breezy Monday afternoon when dozens of locals turned out to watch as a new ornamental lighthouse was installed atop the quaint Lighthouse Inn near Fulton Harbor.

Residents watch as a new lighthouse frame is hoisted onto the Lighthouse Inn. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But as the city rebuilds, it’s also looking past the horizon of this summer’s tourism and grabbing on to opportunities that will fortify the local economy in ways that protect the town from both creeping threats and devastating natural disasters, and preserving what makes it unique.

“There’s an uneasiness in the community about how the community will change,” said Diane Probst, president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce. “And we are doing everything in our power to keep that charm and that coastal character that this community offers but using the opportunity to advance us and be that much better of a community. It’s a delicate balance.”

Millions in federal and state disaster aid and private donations have flowed into the area, allowing for infrastructure improvements including a new convention center and center for the arts. Even the old bait stands have been rebuilt.

It’s a silver lining to the hurricane that Probst said is offering the town a chance to diversify its economy and further protect its natural resources. One of the ways in which city officials hope to do that is by establishing a new industry with oyster aquaculture.

“We have 20,000 acres of water that surrounds our land since we’re a peninsula,” Probst said of Rockport and the adjacent municipality of Fulton, which extend into Copano and Aransas bays. “There’s room for that growth.

“We’ve got to look at other innovative areas, especially something like that – good to the ecosystem. That’s kind of what our area is all about.”

Demand for the edible bivalve is increasing. The value of the U.S. oyster industry – currently $217 million – has doubled since 2003. Nearly half of all U.S. oyster production comes from Texas and Louisiana.

The Texas oyster industry has a $50 million annual impact on the state economy. But the resource has declined over time due to overfishing and natural disasters. Texas is the nation’s only coastal state where commercial oyster farming is not permitted, but proposed legislation aims to change that.

Commercial oyster aquaculture is a $173 million industry in the United States, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Oyster farming has been a common practice in the Pacific Northwest and along the East Coast for many years, but newer in Southern coastal areas.

Oyster aquaculture can be practiced year-round, which not only helps meet the growing demand, but also relieves pressure on natural oyster reefs, which filter saltwater, reduce coastal erosion, and provide critical wildlife habitat for over 300 different aquatic species.

A bill introduced in February by State Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) seeks to allow the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop rules and conditions for operating cultivated oyster operations in the state. The bill calls for Texas Parks and Wildlife to coordinate with the Department of State Health Services, the General Land Office, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Texas Department of Agriculture to ensure shellfish harvesting and consumer safety requirements are met and that growers are licensed.

House Bill 1300 has passed the House and is expected to be approved soon by the Senate before going to the governor’s desk.

If all goes as planned, cultivated oysters could be on restaurant menus on the coast, and even in San Antonio by 2021, said Brad Lomax, owner of the Water Street Oyster Bar. His restaurant in Corpus Christi can serve up to 600,000 raw oysters on the half shell in a year, he said, and that’s not counting fried oysters or those used in making gumbo.

Lomax recently testified on behalf of the bill, having become an advocate for oyster farming in Texas after visiting operations in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, like Murder Point – which touts its bivalves as “oysters worth killing for.”

“I saw what they are doing, I tasted the product, and I found out that throughout the South, their oyster menus rival their wine menus,” Lomax said. “They are branded with cool names, and they describe them like wine snobs – ‘a subtle hint’ of all this stuff. It’s marketing, and they sell them like crazy.”

Farming oysters is usually done using cages that are suspended on poles and float in the water. The cages are manually rotated to produce a meatier oyster that grows within a teacup-shaped shell. Watch a video of the process here.

“We’re creating a new industry in the state of Texas,” Lomax said. “It’s an entrepreneurial opportunity, and existing oyster suppliers are going to have a new product in their repertoire that they can distribute, and there will be a need for hatcheries. It’s not Amazon, but it’s a job creator, especially in some really tough areas beat up by storms in the last 10 years.”

Whether it will strengthen the Rockport economy remains to be seen. “The salesman in me wants to say it will solve all our problems,” Lomax said, adding it’s going to take many different kinds of initiatives, “and this will be one of them.”

Fans of raw oysters also flock to the family-style Boiling Pot, a 34-year-old Rockport restaurant that sustained major hurricane damage and subsequent loss in business. “The winter was really kind of difficult for us. But spring has really sprung,” owner Nancy LeBlanc said. “We’re very excited for the year.”

Nancy LeBlanc owns the Boiling Pot, a 34-year-old restaurant damaged when Hurricane Harvey slammed into Rockport. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

LeBlanc said a single server can sell up to 10 dozen oysters on the half shell in one weekend morning. When oysters aren’t available on the Rockport docks, LeBlanc buys them from the Houston area and Louisiana, “but you can tell the difference. These have a different salt taste to them.”

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi research scientist Joe Fox began working on a commercial oyster aquaculture project several years ago. He has applied for $6.6 million in funding through a RESTORE Act grant, created by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement, to turn an unused marine lab into an oyster resource and recovery center. Located in the coastal town of Palacios, just north of Port O’Connor, the center would provide oyster aquaculture training and produce young oysters or larvae to help with reef restoration.

“The center’s overarching goal is to stimulate economic development along the Texas coast, especially for communities hit really hard by environmental disasters,” said Fox, who is also chairman for Marine Resource Development at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.

“This is a new phenomenon to the Gulf Coast … but typically these efforts are in response to downturns in terms of natural production and yields. The Texas oyster industry has been suffering for many years and production has been on the general decline for a few years now.”

Fox estimates that doubling the production of oysters in the state and creating a predictable supply would require 2,000 acres of production. The coast has about 1.5 million acres that potentially could be used.

Oysters already are harvested from over 22,000 acres of Texas reefs located mostly in Galveston, Matagorda, and San Antonio bays, along with more than 2,000 private oyster leases in Galveston Bay. Texas Parks and Wildlife sets the sack limit at 30 per day per boat. One oyster fisherman, Mario Morales, who came to the U.S. from Nuevo León on a temporary work visa and spoke with the Rivard Report as he unloaded the day’s catch, said he gets paid $8 per sack.

Proponents of oyster farming say another benefit of the industry is that it would provide year-round employment for fishermen and people like Morales.

Those who are concerned about commercial oyster aquaculture generally say floating cages of oysters could cause navigational hazards for boaters, block recreational fishing areas, and create visual blight for coastal homeowners and watercraft. Debris left behind by abandoned or storm-ravaged farms is an issue raised by environmental conservation groups.

If the oyster farming bill passes, a public input process will begin, said Lance Robinson, coastal fisheries deputy division director at Texas Parks and Wildlife. “There are a lot of details to be worked out,” he said. “We may be late getting into the game, but we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from others who have gone before us. We are hoping to build a program to provide the tools to the Commission that creates a program that’s successful from the beginning.”

Robinson said Texas Parks and Wildlife has already begun analysis of Texas bay waters to map potential sites. “When you look out across the bay system, it looks like a wide expanse of water … but there are a lot of others using the area. We want to be sensitive to that,” he said, adding that initial mapping studies show there are enough areas in each bay system where such operations could be established.

Robinson said the fact that oyster aquaculture creates a very boutique type of half-shell product means that it won’t compete with wild-harvest oyster fishing, for which there is also a big market, such as grocery stores and those who use oysters in cooking.

But there’s no way to tell yet whether oyster farming will take off in Texas and bring an economic boost to places like Rockport, he said.

“We have no good idea how many people might want to get into this business,” Robinson said. In other areas of the country, he said, it has spawned a cottage industry – similar to the small wineries in the Hill Country – where oyster tasting cafes have been established along the coastline as a foodie-tourist destination.

Aransas County Commissioner Bubba Casterline grew up in a fishing family in Rockport, buying oysters off the boats since the 1940s. He sold the labor-intensive business about four years ago. Casterline is unconvinced that oyster farms will make it big on the Texas coast due to the work involved in maintaining them. But he’s resolute that Rockport will return to normal – in time.

Bubba Casterline says oyster farming takes a lot of work. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I don’t know what percentage of the population had never been through a hurricane before Harvey, but it was real high,” Casterline said. “I’ve been here my whole life, so I’ve been through a lot of them and it amazed me how many people literally thought you should be back up and going and everything fixed in a year’s time. It’ll be a few more years.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.