Consider the Oyster

There is no greater delicacy than a plate of live, briny bivalves—and no richer source of them than the Gulf Coast. Yet in Galveston Bay, where acres of reefs were obliterated by Hurricane Ike, empty waters are causing oystermen to hang up their nets. Is this the end of our precious mollusk?

April 2010By Comments

Left, a pile of empty shells, or cultch, used to build oyster reefs in Galveston Bay; right, oysterman Mihael Ivic with one of the trucks he uses to transport his now meager harvest.
Photographs by Kenny Braun

THERE IS SOMETHING atavistic about the oyster, something that hides in the dark corners of our brains among lost baseball gloves and bottle-cap collections and unfinished love letters. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t crave one. When I was three or four, my daddy would hoist me onto his lap, where I would gobble oysters almost as fast as he could open them with his pocketknife. Daddy would bring back a sack or two every time he went fishing in Port Aransas, packed in ice inside his giant red cooler. Oyster Nights on the back lawn of our home in Arlington were festive occasions prized by nearly everyone in the neighborhood—adults, kids, and assorted dogs and cats, a chorus of squeals and laughter as friends gathered close around two washtubs, one filled with iced-down oysters that my dad and his friends had already popped open and the other with beer and soft drinks. There was always a big dish of red sauce, though many preferred just a squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt. Daddy added a drop or two of Tabasco, claiming the slow burn of peppers sharpened the grainy tang of cold beer. He swore to me that if I listened real hard just as I squeezed the lemon, I could hear the oyster’s dying scream.

Eating oysters is a ritual. It requires elbow room, enough old newspapers to wrap up the empty shells, and a measure of appreciation that the small animal huddled in its pearly shell is alive and about to die for your pleasure. Devouring an animal that is still living challenges the appetite and tests almost to the breaking point one’s sense of decorum. Is there a gracious way to eat oysters? Is it possible to eat too many? What’s the proper accompanying beverage, beer or crisp white wine?

During my newspaper days in Dallas in the sixties, the staff of the Dallas Times Herald collected regularly at Louis’ Oyster Bar just down the street and wagered substantial amounts of money on who could eat the most oysters in an afternoon. I can’t recall his name, but a pudgy photographer who worked for United Press International could put away eight or ten dozen without pausing for breath. Though I never took part in the competition, I’d go through three or four dozen while keeping score. The oyster orgy at Louis’s was usually followed by an evening of cocktails at the University Club, a spot that did not recognize curfew. I never saw anyone get sick from eating oysters, which is not to say that afternoons at Louis’s and evenings at the University Club didn’t eventually result in worse-than-death hangovers.

Oysters get a bad rap, mostly, I think, from those who don’t like them. Every so often you hear of an unfortunate run-in: I saw one report as recently as December about public health officials closing San Antonio Bay because several people had fallen ill after eating its oysters. But as I learned a few years ago from my friend Sammy Ray, an oyster pathologist and professor emeritus at Texas A&M University at Galveston, most people who become deathly ill are often already suffering from liver disease or a compromised immune system. Sammy has studied oysters for sixty-something years and is one of the world’s leading experts on oyster diseases; when I called to ask him about the outbreak, he reminded me that the warm-weather bacteria most often blamed for illness, Vibrio vulnificus, is usually nothing a healthy liver can’t process. As for San Antonio Bay, he had been examining oysters in the area and believed that they had been exposed to a different bacteria after harvesting, probably as they were being shipped to market. The incident, he said, need not hinder my affair with the half shell.

But I was distressed when, soon afterward, I read a far more worrisome report. Oystermen in Galveston Bay, it claimed, were barely hanging on, or in some cases quitting the business, because of damage done to oyster reefs by Hurricane Ike, in September 2008. This is potentially devastating news for oyster lovers: Almost 70 percent of the oysters harvested annually in Texas come from Galveston Bay. Indeed, the Gulf supplies most of the so-called Eastern oysters—or Crassostrea virginicas, famous for their proliferation and superior flavor—consumed in the nation. The fabled oyster beds of Long Island, New York Harbor, and Chesapeake Bay were polluted or fished out long ago. By contrast, Galveston Bay, along with a few smaller Texas bays, produced a record 6.8 million pounds as recently as 2003, nearly double what it did in 1900. Is the devastation wrought by Ike the beginning of the end for our oysters? Could Texas also be on a track to oyster oblivion?

I decided to consult with Sammy. At 91, he is a gnome of a man, feisty as a bumblebee and ever ready to turn the simplest question into a lengthy lecture he calls Oyster Biology 101.

“Tell me the truth, Sammy,” I said. “How bad is it?”

“It’s bad,” he said flatly. “Come down and I’ll give you a tour.”

GALVESTON BAY and the other estuaries of the Gulf are about the last places in the country where wild oysters are harvested. The fishing fleet is mobile and moves from bay to bay as conditions dictate, but at any given time there are about 450 licensed oystermen in Galveston waters, many of whom have been there all their lives. Though a vast majority of them work the 22,760 acres of reefs open to the public, the oyster trade in Texas is controlled by a handful of private-lease holders, among them Mihael Ivic, brothers Ben and Joe Nelson, and Johnny and Lisa Halili. These producers own flotillas of oyster boats—Ivic and the Halilis on the west side of the bay, in San Leon, the Nelsons on the east side, in Smith Point—and operate processing plants, which buy oysters from numerous smaller operators.

Sammy took me first to meet Mihael Ivic. A towering figure with hands the size of iron skillets, a head that almost grazed the ceiling, and a broad, weathered face, he pulled up two seats for us in his office at Misho’s Oyster Company, then lowered himself into the chair behind his desk. For a moment, he seemed lost in thought, staring out the sandblasted window. It was a week before Christmas, and we could see the wreckage of his pier and a wall of pilings he had just finished reconstructing, a small part of the damage done by Ike. One of his ten oyster boats had been destroyed in the storm, and he had been forced to shut down his business for two months. December should have been his busiest time of year, but fifteen months after the big blow, he was still struggling to recover.

“I lost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars last summer,” he lamented in his thick Croatian accent. The sixty-year-old immigrated to the United States in the seventies, first to Louisiana, where he learned the oyster trade while working his way toward a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of New Orleans, and then to Galveston Bay. Oystering paid so well that he eventually abandoned his engineering plans. Though business had improved with the coming of cold weather—when oysters begin to hit their peak flavor—Ivic was harvesting maybe one third of what he had in previous years.

Sammy and I heard the same grievance from 71-year-old Ben Nelson, whose family has been fishing Texas waters since the twenties. Oyster season runs from November 1 until April 30, but for many oystermen, said Nelson, it might as well have been over. “The first few weeks of the season, there were four hundred boats out there,” said Nelson. “But here it is, the end of December, and there ain’t no oysters, period.” In the twelve months before Ike, oyster revenue in the bay topped $18 million; in the twelve months that followed, it was less than $7 million. In their desperation to compete, oystermen were picking the reefs clean before the oysters hit their prime. “I’ve been in this business all my life,” Nelson said, “and I’ve never seen it worse than this.”

An oysterman who has leases in Galveston Bay is responsible for creating his own reefs. Leaseholders dump loads of cultch (usually empty oyster shells) into their underwater plots, where free-floating larvae settle during the spring spawning season, become spat, and over the next eighteen months grow into plump, delicate oysters ready for market. They are then harvested from the decks of boats called luggers, which are equipped with a wheelhouse, a canopy to shade the oysters, and a winch, which lowers and raises a giant rake with a net attached, called a dredge. A captain positions his oyster boat over a reef. His crew marks the harvesting spot by sticking cane poles into the bay floor (the water is an average depth of eight feet) and lowers the dredge. The captain maneuvers the lugger in tight circles around the reef; when the net is full, the dredge is pulled in, and the crew dumps the catch onto sorting tables. Empty shells and oysters that are too small (less than three inches across) are thrown back; the rest are processed and delivered to market.

It’s the kind of work that requires almost constant activity, yet as Sammy and I made our way around the bay, the usually busy waterfront was as quiet as a cemetery. Most of the boats were tied to their piers, and the oystermen were busy at things that had nothing to do with harvesting oysters. The storm had swept tons of sediment and debris from Bolivar Peninsula and dumped it squarely on the bay’s reefs, decimating them. “Half the oyster reefs in the bay—eight thousand acres—were silted over, literally smothered,” Lance Robinson, a regional director for Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Coastal Fisheries Division, told me. “In East Bay, it was more like eighty percent loss. We were taken aback by the impact of Ike.”

If the mood was grim for producers like Ivic and Nelson, I could only begin to imagine the hardships the bay’s smaller producers were facing. Private-lease holders enjoy a huge advantage over public oystermen: They are allowed by law to harvest year-round, not just during oyster season, and have access to both their own reefs and the bay’s public ones. There are only 43 private leases in Texas, all of them in Galveston Bay, each ranging anywhere from eleven acres to one hundred acres in size. (As a means to control the oyster population, the state put a moratorium on new leases in the mid-eighties and another one on all oyster licenses in 2007.) This means that leaseholders produce a disproportionate amount of the total harvest, about 30 percent. If the big-timers were suffering, it didn’t bode well for others trying to make a living on the Gulf Coast. No wonder oystermen were abandoning their nets.

“The storm surge was like a bomb going off,” I was told by Lisa Halili, who, with her husband, Johnny, owns Prestige Oysters, the largest shipper on the bay. A tall, attractive woman who grew up in East Texas, she was dressed in a black sweater and black leather boots when we met, her hair tucked under a white silk scarf. She had never seen an oyster until she moved to the bay for a job as a waitress and ended up working as a deckhand on her future husband’s boat. “A few years ago,” she said, “most of us were getting ninety sacks a day, which is the state limit. Now you’re lucky to get twenty.” After Galveston Bay was picked over, Halili continued, most oystermen sent their boats south to Matagorda Bay, where crews were still catching their limit. Chaos ensued almost at once. “There were so many boats, it was like bumper cars,” she said, laughing at the absurdity.

Now nearly all Galveston oystermen are harvesting their product from Louisiana, where the storm damage was not as severe and where leases are far more available than in Texas. The Halilis, who are still living on the second floor of their home after the first floor was flooded by Ike, have 15,000 acres of leases in Louisiana. Ivic told me that he had recently shipped 56,000 pounds of shucked oysters to the East Coast, nearly all of which came from his out-of-state leases. “We manage to stay in business only because of Louisiana,” he said. “I’m holding on by my fingernails.”

Even in the best of times, oystermen have to be fighters and, like their prey, often rely on primeval instincts. They can and do quarrel over almost anything: the size and condition of their competitors’ boats, the catch limit, the merits of fishing regulations. Many Galveston Bay oystermen are hostile toward the bay’s Vietnamese crews, whose dredges tend to be older, heavier, and more destructive to the reefs. In some states, dredging is illegal: Instead, fishermen gather oysters from small boats using long-handled tongs. As Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh describes in his fascinating book Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour, tonging is easier on the reef and, of course, much slower than dredging, stretching out the season and allowing small operators to stay in business. Walsh notes that oystermen in Apalachicola Bay, Florida, went so far as to pressure the state to pass a law banning dredging on public reefs. But Texans love their dredges: Anyone who would tong for oysters would probably squat to pee.

As we continued our tour, Sammy directed me around the north end of the bay and down the east side to Smith Point, so we could visit with Ben and Joe Nelson. Smith Point juts out into the water on the back side of the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, and unlike the west side, which is a jumble of homes on stilts, convenience stores, bait shops, and corrugated-metal boatyards, it is sparsely populated, a small collection of wooden structures surrounded by docks, piers, and fishing boats. Virtually the entire village is owned by the Nelsons. It has an understated charm that reminds me of places I’ve seen in Louisiana and Mississippi, with marshy fields full of cattle, egrets, and snow geese. The people here seem permanently stained by wind and sun, friendly enough but wary of outsiders.

Ben met us at his house, leading us to the roomy kitchen behind his office, where his wife gave us coffee and an aluminum pan of fried oysters left over from lunch. Though the oysters had gone cold, they tasted wonderful, and we ate nearly the whole pan. Ben is a robust, forthright man with a caustic wit and sprigs of curly gray hair escaping from under his fisherman’s cap. When I asked where he was from, he replied, “Right here! I was born in Smith Point, and I’ll die in Smith Point—my wife tells me sooner than I think if I don’t change my ways.” The year’s poor crop of oysters hadn’t ruined him only because he also owns oil, gas, and pipeline leases, as well as some cattle and land on the east side.

Ben has accumulated oyster leases since 1964 and owns eleven, which cover a total of 750 acres. Joe has four leases covering 318 acres. Together they control nearly half of the 2,371 acres of private reefs in the bay. And yet as we made our way to Joe’s operation, just down a long stretch of dock from Ben’s, it seemed like another world: I gathered that there wasn’t much love lost between the Nelson boys. “Ben and Joe communicate mostly through their wives,” Sammy told me. “Money is thicker than blood.” Joe is two years older than Ben and somewhat friendlier. Leaning back in his office swivel chair, he regaled us with stories. “When we were kids, me and Ben would take Dad’s boat and go up and down the bayou, filling a number-three washtub with oysters,” he recalled. “We’d take ’em to school and sell ’em to the teacher for sixty cents a quart.” The current economy was terrible, he told us, worse than anything he could remember. “Labor’s my biggest problem,” he said. “I wanted thirty men and all I could find was nine. Turned out there weren’t no oysters anyway, so it was okay.”

There is no shortage of outside pressures on bay oystermen. The state reduced the daily sack limit from 150 to 90 a few years ago, a move designed to extend the season and improve the quality of the harvest. But the reduction only highlighted the animosity and mistrust among competing interests. Small operators continue to agitate for an even lower limit. The big shots don’t see much need for limits at all, or even regulations. In their view, government meddling just encourages competitors who ought to be in some other line of work. Or worse, speculators, who will buy oystermen’s commercial licenses for the sole purpose of scalping them at a profit. Noting that the price of a dredging license is nearly $500, Ben groused, “I wish it was a thousand!”

Then there’s bio-politics. Oystermen fret that evolving regulations will poison their trade, such as the attempt last fall by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to force fishermen to freeze or pasteurize oysters before sending them to market, a process that kills not only bacteria but the oysters as well. The effort was quickly struck down by Gulf Coast lawmakers, but the FDA could resurrect the idea again this spring. “Some restaurants refuse to buy untreated oysters, especially in the summer,” explained Clifford Hillman, who has been in the postharvest processing business for 23 years and owns plants in Dickinson and Port Lavaca. Hillman uses a cryogenic freezing process that is fast and does minimum cell damage. It doesn’t change an oyster’s taste or texture—or so Hillman and others claim. But I don’t believe this for a second. I’ve always thought that slurping a live oyster directly from its shell, inhaling that fresh, wild, sweet, delicate aroma, was one of life’s most sensual experiences. Dead oysters taste—dead.

What an amazing animal, the oyster. People ascribe qualities approaching the realm of magic to this silent, self-sufficient little mollusk. It is thought by some to be a stimulus to the brain and probably an aphrodisiac—a belief not necessarily supported by hard evidence. Oysters have been staples at orgies at least as far back as Nero. Anyone who has looked lovingly at an oyster understands how it came to be popularly identified with the female anatomy.

Oysters are a triumph over nature herself. They sequester harmful carbon dioxide and use it to create their protective shells. Anytime the species’ reproductive cycle gets out of balance, they can change their sex. Each one is a small filter system, able to pump fifty gallons of water through its body every day, retaining for its own nutrition organic material like plankton and algae while filtering out even the nastiest toxins. Oysters are the lungs of our coastal systems. Galveston Bay, despite its unappetizing backdrop of refineries and rusty tankers, is actually relatively clean, thanks partly to the Clean Water Act of 1972 but also to its abundance of oyster reefs: If the bay looks murky, it is only because it is teeming with the things oysters like to eat.

The life cycle of an oyster is delicate and perfectly calibrated to its habitat. When water temperatures in Galveston Bay drop in the fall and winter, oysters start storing a sweet-tasting carbohydrate compound called glycogen. From January until the end of March, Gulf oysters are the fattest, sweetest, and probably best-tasting in the country. But as the weather starts to warm in late April—when it’s nearly time for oysters to spawn—they begin converting glycogen to gonad, a reproductive material that tastes fishy and flat. By summer, oysters have lost most of their body fat and taste like wet cardboard.

Oysters are the canaries of the bay, Sammy informed me as we boarded the ferry back to Galveston. “If oysters are doing well, the bay is healthy.” Even though he is officially retired from teaching, Sammy still goes seven days a week to his cramped little university lab on the Fort Crockett campus. One of several diplomas on his wall is signed by Denton Cooley and certifies that Sammy is a “Specialist in Cardiology of Ostrea virginica.

Ike was an aberration, Sammy believes, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. As a scientist, he considers the oyster’s primary threat to be something more insidious: salinity. Salt in moderation is essential to estuaries, where most marine life begins, but if the concentration is too high—or too low—it can kill shellfish. In fact, most environmentalists, scientists, and commercial fishermen believe salinity to be the bay’s most pressing issue. Sammy, who travels regularly to different parts of the Texas coastline, had recently returned from Copano Bay, where, for the first time in his life, he’d found evidence that oysters were starving to death. The villain, he suspected, was salinity so high that it inhibited the growth of the plankton that oysters feed on.

Now that Ike had destroyed so many reefs, I asked Sammy if there was a danger that Galveston Bay could end up like Chesapeake Bay, where a century of reef dredging, drought, pollution, and oyster diseases has nearly wiped out the oyster industry. “Chesapeake Bay is different,” he answered. “It’s deeper, and it’s dependent on a number of rivers from different states with conflicting sets of regulations.” But yes, it could happen. The Trinity River supplies more than half the inflow to Galveston Bay, and wind-driven tides, which work like a giant mixer, create an unending squeeze play between the freshwater and the saltwater. This causes places in the upper part of Trinity Bay to be so low in salinity that oysters die of the freshet, or too much freshwater. “But our biggest problem,” Sammy said, “is protecting the crop from predators and parasites.” When salinity gets above fifteen parts per thousand or when water temperatures go above 70 degrees, he explained, predators like the oyster drill and parasites like Dermo thrive—and can greatly reduce the population of oysters.

Except for emergency measures such as closing East Bay and appropriating $2.5 million to clean up Ike’s damage to public reefs, Texas has done little so far to help its oystermen. Following Hurricane Katrina, the government of Mississippi dumped bargeloads of shells into its bays to create new reefs; in Louisiana, the state ensures that shells are deposited in the bays prior to spawning season, and it plants oyster seedbeds, where fishermen can gather juveniles to stock their leases. In Texas, there are no such official seedbeds. “This isn’t a commercial fishing state,” Joe Nelson explained. “It’s a recreational one.”

The state has begun some restoration on the bay’s east side, dumping in tons of river rock to create new reefs. It has also announced plans to hire out-of-work oystermen to dredge up layers of shells currently buried in the muck. The rock and recovered shells will give oyster larvae the kind of hard, clean subsurfaces they need to keep the life cycle going. The project won’t get under way, however, until this May. Many oystermen wonder if it’s too little, too late. “By the time a new crop is ready to harvest, we will have lost four years,” Joe told me. Most of his peers believe the state should just shut down Galveston Bay and give it time to recover. “They should close all the bays and do it right now,” Ben said. Halili agreed: “We were very upset that they didn’t close the season. The bay is in bad shape. People are going out all day and coming back with seven sacks, ten sacks.”

“We can close the bay for biological needs but not economic ones,” Lance Robinson told me, noting that Texas Parks and Wildlife has in fact closed East Bay for two years to allow the oyster population to recover. Oystermen could lobby the state for further relief for the industry, but given the stubborn independence and mistrust of government that persists among bay locals, that’s not likely to happen. In Louisiana, fishermen occasionally come together long enough to force the state to address their needs, but as Ben told me, “Texas fishermen can’t agree on nothing.”

For someone with an irrepressible taste for oysters, this is a grave tragedy, because as I see it, one long-term problem for Galveston Bay is that no one seems willing to practice quality control. Gulf oysters aren’t truly tasty until the weather gets cold, and yet the free-for-all at the start of the season means the reefs are practically bare by the time they would be at their sweetest. The only way to remedy a rushed harvest of oysters that may not be at their prime is for Texas Parks and Wildlife to delay the season until at least Christmas. Or, perhaps, to stagger the opening of the season from bay to bay. Small-scale oystermen worry that such changes would threaten their livelihood—the holiday demand for their product and the revenue it brings are impossible to ignore—but I think they’re wrong. I believe this kind of oversight is the only way to ensure superior oysters and sustain the oystermen’s way of life.

Nobody knows how long it will take the bay to recover. “Some of the habitat will come back naturally as currents sweep sediment off the reefs,” Robinson told me. “But not nearly enough to reclaim what we’ve lost. That will take decades.” In his book, Walsh suggests that the future of the industry in the Gulf may be a hybrid of oyster farming and wild harvesting, similar to models used in Louisiana and Connecticut, where leaseholders buy seed oysters from hatcheries or state oyster beds. Either way, oyster prospects look bleak for now. But a few oystermen are optimistic. The hardy little creature, after all, was here before recorded history and will probably outlast the human race. “Animals have a way of knowing, an instinct to prolong life,” said Ivic. “If you catch a pregnant killer whale, she will find a way to birth her baby before she dies. Oysters will breed new generations. It will take a while, but we are sitting on a gold mine.”

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