Progress in Texas aquaculture

Environmental science studies often take place over large landscapes and over extended periods of time, making some particular interactions challenging to understand. Many studies focus on natural or man-made disasters that have obvious and definitive impacts to ecosystems, such as a major flood or oil spill. Large-scale incidents also trigger additional scientific funding, as they are in the public spotlight and in the media. These case studies provide valuable information about our coastal ecosystems and how ecosystem health can impact coastal communities. Over time, reading these types of studies can be a bit disheartening, especially if there is no major mechanism for improvement in near sight.

However, I am happy to say that this is not always the case, and some major advancements have happened in the last few years. I have been studying bivalve aquaculture at Harte Research Institute since 2019, when the first proposed rules with House Bill 1300 and Texas Parks and Wildlife were being drafted and discussed. This bill would enable oyster aquaculture within Texas, which can sustainably provide oysters to the public without the need for interference with natural reefs, which have faced significant declines globally. Until HB 1300, Texas was the only coastal state not engaged in oyster aquaculture. This would enable natural reefs to continue to contribute to ecosystem services, such as water filtration, storm mitigation, and acting as a physical structure for other organisms. Although this is a major milestone worthy of celebration, I initially reserved my enthusiasm until I would see more progress.

Oysters being conditioned for spawning at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Mariculture Laboratory in Flour Bluff, Texas. Photo from Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

Fast forward about five years, and there has been a surge of buzz around the new oyster aquaculture industry. New oyster farms have been permitted throughout Copano, Aransas, and Galveston Bays. Oyster hatcheries (where oyster seed is produced) have been rapidly developing and breeding different strains of oysters. And recently, at the very first permitted oyster farm in Copano Bay, Texas, oysters have been raised from seed and sold to customers in the Texas Coastal Bend.

This marks a massive achievement, and begins to move oyster aquaculture from a theoretical possibility into a very real, industry-scale business. This has also enabled research to form strong partnerships with growers, facilitating comprehensive research into oyster production and providing each other insight and data for future success. Check out the Gulf Stream podcast about these types of collaborations.

An adult bay scallop (Argopectem irradians). Scallop’s eyes are composed of guanine, the same material in DNA and shimmering fish scales. The tiny blue dots are the scallop’s eyes; up to 200 of them. Scientists theorize that there is some mechanism to create a “mosaic” for one image composed from every eye. Photo by Anthony Lima.

I recently visited the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center in Flour Bluff to witness the progress they have made over the last few years, including multiple generations of different strains of oysters and multiple projects with broodstock (adult oysters kept for breeding) in different bodies of water in the Coastal Bend and beyond. Even other types of bivalves, such as bay scallops, are now being raised in Texas hatcheries. These achievements catapult the seafood industry in Texas, as local seed supplies are absolutely vital for industry growth in the years to come. When I think about the next five years for shellfish aquaculture in Texas, I believe this upward trajectory of sustainable aquaculture alongside industry development and more advanced science will continue. Texas oyster aquaculture is a success story unfolding in real time, and a case study of practical environmental solutions along our most valuable coastal habitats. Environmental science usually highlights what is going wrong, but we must also appreciate what is improving and identify success.

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