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?

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

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