Marked “RUSH!” and “PERISHABLE,” the precious cargo arrived at Brad Lomax’s Corpus Christi home just about as late as it could have. In his haste to collect the white cardboard box, which represented the culmination of four years of work, Lomax failed to fully close the front door behind him, and Pickles, his black-and-white rescue mutt, darted out, sending the UPS driver hotfooting it back to his vehicle.
Wearing gray cargo shorts, flip-flops, and a white T-shirt bearing the logo of the long-gone Pat Magee’s Surf Shop, Lomax hustled Pickles back into the house, then grabbed the box and climbed into his black Toyota Tundra. The clock was ticking as he thumbed a text message to his compatriots: “This is mother bird. Baby birds loaded up. Heading to the nest.”
Just after 10 a.m., Lomax raced down Ocean Drive, through downtown Corpus, up onto the Harbor Bridge, and across the bay, northeast on U.S. 181. His truck was nearly out of gas, but there wasn’t time for a pit stop along the thirty-plus miles he needed to cover. He wondered if any traffic cop who were to pull him over would accept the excuse that the birth of a new industry rode beside him.
The roughly 100,000 seed oysters in the box on his passenger seat had been shipped the day before from the hatchery where they’d spawned, an Auburn University facility on Dauphin Island, on the Alabama coast, nearly 600 miles to the east. Every minute they remained out of the water increased their risk of dying. Lomax hoped for the best as he drove 85 miles per hour along the last stretch of back road to a stilt house beside Copano Bay. From there, on that sunny Tuesday morning in early October 2021, he would oversee the launch of the first commercial oyster farm in Texas.
Shellfish were nothing new to the 67-year-old Lomax, who opened Water Street Oyster Bar nearly forty years ago in what had been a downtown Corpus Christi transmission shop. The San Antonio native had migrated to the Coastal Bend in 1982 to indulge his love of riding the waves, and he still carries himself with the easygoing air of a surfer, even though he had to give up the sport years ago because of a bum shoulder (as he puts it, he can no longer paddle, except in circles). He often wears his graying dirty-blond hair in a ponytail. Yet his avuncular mien belies the determined businessman and community leader he is. He not only grew Water Street into a local institution but, bit by bit, bought up the adjacent properties, adding other restaurants and retail space and even opening the Texas Surf Museum.
But as Lomax sped his “baby birds” to Copano Bay, he worried his oyster farm might be headed for a disastrous start. Copano, sandwiched between the towns of Bayside and Rockport, is fed by fresh water from the Aransas and Mission Rivers, which mixes with the salt water that enters through the adjacent Aransas Bay. This typically results in brackish water in which oysters, crabs, and many other marine creatures thrive. Rain had recently pounded the areas upstream, however, and the resulting rush of fresh water had made the bay’s salinity level unusually low. Measured by the number of grams of salt found in one thousand grams of seawater, salinity levels in the high teens to mid-twenties are considered ideal for growing Gulf oysters. Lomax and his team had already postponed plans to stock their eight-acre farm the previous week, when the salinity level registered below ten.
Unfortunately, the delay didn’t help. Days before Lomax’s harried drive, the Corpus Christi area received another deluge, and the salinity dipped further, to only four parts per thousand. But because their seed oysters were outgrowing the Alabama hatchery, the team had to take the risk of going ahead. It was merely the latest hurdle in what had been more than a year of unexpected challenges—for Lomax, other potential farmers, and even state regulators—since the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had begun accepting applications for oyster mariculture permits. A lot was riding on this venture, and success seemed far from guaranteed.
He’s no doubt biased, considering he has devoted much of his career to studying aquaculture, but to hear marine biologist Joe Fox tell it, the Texas coast owes everything to oysters. “Nearly every little community you see along the Texas coast, all the way from Galveston south almost to the border, was not built on sportfishing,” he said. “It was built on oysters.”
Predating the arrival of Europeans, the Karankawa people—whose traditional lands ran between what we today call the Galveston and Corpus Christi Bays—consumed the mollusks in such abundance that they left behind huge oyster-shell middens all along the coast. As this teeming coastline became part of Texas, the collective appetite for bivalves birthed a robust industry, and the state’s warm waters came to be known for growing especially large wild oysters. These are not the smaller, delicate cold-water oysters of the Northeast or the Pacific Northwest, which are favored by half-shell connoisseurs. But Gulf oysters have attracted plenty of fans who
happily devour them by the dozen.
Twenty years ago, the Gulf of Mexico accounted for 62 percent of wild oysters commercially harvested nationwide, but the region’s reefs have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Last year, Gulf fisheries yielded about half as many oysters as in 2002, accounting for 55 percent of the nation’s total. The nonprofit Nature Conservancy reports that the number of wild Gulf oysters has declined by 50 to 85 percent in the past century.
One culprit is climate change, which has affected both the water temperature and the salinity level of the bays where oysters thrive, compromising their health and that of the algae on which they feed. It’s also contributed to the increased intensity of devastating weather events. In 2008 Hurricane Ike dumped a foot or more of sediment onto oyster reefs in Galveston Bay, smothering them. In 2017 Hurricane Harvey killed as much as 90 percent of the bay’s oysters.
Combine those setbacks with increased consumer demand, and it’s little surprise that state agencies have ratcheted up restrictions. Every year since 2014, some bays have been temporarily closed to oyster fishing. Population declines got so concerning this past January that Parks and Wildlife shut down nearly all public harvesting grounds, effectively putting an end to the annual oyster season, which usually runs through April. The new season began November 1 with most harvest areas closed in Aransas, Galveston, Matagorda, and San Antonio Bays. Two days later, the Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the permanent closure of three bays not far east of Copano—Ayres, Carlos, and Mesquite—a decision that sharply divided conservationists and the fishing industry.
Few in Texas understand this situation better than Fox, which is why, in 2015, when a colleague approached him about making use of a defunct marine education center in the small coastal town of Palacios, Fox’s first thought was of oysters. At the time he was the chair of the Department of Life Sciences at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. He hatched a plan to transform the weathered white buildings of laboratory classrooms and offices—on acreage that was once part of a World War II–era military training center and prisoner-of-war camp—into a research center aimed at helping the state’s wild oyster reefs recover. He thought it could also serve as a proving ground for Texas oyster farming, where researchers could test a variety of gear and techniques in the shallow, windswept bays.
Though oysters have been cultivated for decades on the East and West Coasts, there were no Gulf Coast commercial oyster farms until 2009, when the first were established in Alabama and Louisiana. The industry grew slowly from there, with Florida changing its regulations to allow for oyster farms in 2015 and Mississippi’s first commercial farms opening in 2019.
The Gulf Coast hadn’t earlier embraced farming largely because it didn’t need to. Natural oyster reefs and privately leased grounds—where lease holders scatter oyster shells for larvae to latch on to and grow—provided plentiful harvests, and the region was not yet overfished. But the steady decline of wild oyster populations in recent years led nonprofits and regulators in most Gulf states to look to other means of ensuring sustainable harvests, including farming.
But not in Texas, where the decline in commercial harvests wasn’t quite as pronounced as elsewhere in the Gulf; last year, for example, the harvest was down only about 9 percent compared with 2000. (The state accounted for 24 percent of commercial oyster landings nationwide last year.) Wild oyster fishing still contributes as much as $70 million in economic impact in Texas each year. Nevertheless, proponents of oyster farming hope that it, too, will someday bring in tens of millions of dollars (nationwide the industry generated $221 million in revenue last year). Yet until a few years ago, no one had pushed for Texas to get into the game. “The oyster industry in the United States was growing hand over fist in every other coastal state except Texas,” Fox said. “We love our state, and it really sucked to be dead last.”
In 2017 Fox went looking for an ally to help rally support for Texas oyster mariculture, and he turned to Brad Lomax. The two men had gotten acquainted nearly a decade earlier, when they’d met while out walking in their Corpus Christi neighborhood. During that first encounter, Lomax had complained to Fox about the sixty to seventy tons of oyster shells that his Water Street restaurants had to pay to have hauled away and disposed of each year. “I’ll bitch to anybody about anything,” Lomax told me. “He said an oyster shell in a landfill is a resource out of place, and that stuck with me.”
Fox proposed that Water Street’s discarded shells could be used to rebuild oyster reefs. Their happenstance discussion eventually led to the creation, in 2009, of Sink Your Shucks, run out of the Harte Research Institute at A&M Corpus Christi. The recycling program regularly picks up shells from restaurants in the area and has collected more than 1.75 million pounds to date, helping to restore more than 25 acres of oyster habitat in Aransas, Copano, and St. Charles Bays.
So, nearly a decade later, when Fox shared his vision for oyster aquaculture, Lomax was happy to listen. He saw an opportunity not only for the state but for himself. By then, he’d begun stepping back from his restaurant businesses. “It was a big changing-of-the-guard moment,” remembered Lomax’s 33-year-old son, Richard, about his taking over Water Street from his father. “He felt bad about himself. You know, you lose purpose, and you kind of lose—like, ‘What’s my next mission in life?’ ”
Brad already appreciated the potential benefits of the reliable, year-round supply of Texas oysters that farming could someday provide. Water Street served about half a million oysters every year, many of which were purchased from out of state, primarily from Louisiana. During much of the year, the number of Texas oysters available to restaurants is limited to what can be harvested from private leases in Galveston Bay, which accounts for a little less than half of the state’s supply, and none are available during the summer months, when wild oysters spawn. More can be sourced during the public oystering season, from November through April, but that supply varies greatly from year to year, especially when bays are closed to allow reefs to regrow.
Lomax understood the environmental benefits as well. According to Fox, oyster farms could help make up for the 65 to 85 percent of natural oyster reefs that Texas has lost over the past century plus. Oysters are astonishingly effective natural water filters that remove both pollutants and elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which in overabundance lead to harmful algal blooms. Each oyster filters as much as fifty gallons of water a day, improving the health of the state’s bays and their marine life.
Lomax threw himself into aiding Fox’s effort. First, state legislation had to be passed to allow for oyster farming in public waters. Fox took a stab at drafting what that law, and related regulations, might look like, modifying existing Parks and Wildlife rules on oyster fishing to apply to aquaculture. He shared his proposal with Carter Smith, the executive director of the agency, who signaled its support. But state government moves slowly. Fox said, “I remember sitting there with Brad going, ‘You know, we’ve got to get to the [Parks and Wildlife] commissioner, to Beaver Aplin [the founder of Buc-ee’s].’ And Brad goes, ‘Well, I just catered something for him and his family down in the Valley, and he gave me his cellphone number.’ We called him up. We talked to him for an hour and a half, and that’s how things get done.”
With Parks and Wildlife leaders on board, the pair sought the support of the restaurant and oyster fishing industries, and they approached Todd Hunter, who has represented much of the Corpus Christi area in the state House of Representatives since 2009. Hunter agreed to file an oyster mariculture bill during the 2019 legislative session. But his chief of staff, Angie Flores Granado, said members from districts far from the coast required education about the benefits of oyster farming. She and Hunter tapped Lomax as their chief spokesman. “Brad was the face of this bill at the Capitol,” she said. “We sent him—this surfer dude—all around. He’s famous at the Capitol. Everybody loves him.”
Lomax moaned when I asked about his short-lived career as an unofficial lobbyist. “One and done,” he said, before recalling some of the guidance Granado and Hunter offered him as he visited member after member. “ ‘This lady won’t be in office next session, but we need her this session.’ ‘This guy is from Canadian, Texas. He’s never even heard of an oyster.’ ”
The bill, which allowed Parks and Wildlife to develop regulations for oyster mariculture, passed the House and the Senate with nearly unanimous support (a single nay vote). Among the members appointed to a working group to advise the agency on shaping those rules were Fox and Lomax.
If I’d have known how much work it was going to be, I’d have never started,” Lomax said, only half joking, the first time I talked to him. Parks and Wildlife had spent roughly a year developing its regulations and would soon be ready to issue oyster farming permits, on September 1, 2020. Lomax planned to be among the first applicants. He hoped to get his chosen farm site approved that fall and to have seed oysters in the water the following January. Growing oysters to market size in time to serve at Water Street the week of Thanksgiving 2021 seemed feasible.
Lomax had dived headfirst into his new occupation, learning the methods of oyster mariculture by, in part, making a few trips to work on a farm on the Alabama coast. He’d recruited financial partners and begun scouting spots in Copano and San Antonio Bays, northeast of Corpus Christi. He was raring to go.
Unfortunately, the bureaucracy wasn’t keeping up with him. To secure his oyster mariculture permit, he would need the site of his farm to be approved by six agencies—Parks and Wildlife, of course, but also the U.S. Coast Guard, the Texas General Land Office, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which also considered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules). Finding a location that not only was ideal for growing oysters but also triangulated byzantine rules—avoiding protected seagrass beds and existing oyster reefs, for example, as well as the abundant oil and gas infrastructure that lines the floors of many Texas bays—tested Lomax’s patience.
Not that the state left him on his own. Marine biologist Emma Clarkson, of Parks and Wildlife’s coastal fisheries habitat assessment team, had developed a mapping tool that incorporated many of the requirements and could tell potential farmers, before they submitted their formal applications, whether a particular site might get rejected. “I don’t care how far you are from a pipeline. That’s GLO’s jurisdiction. I don’t care how close you are to whooping crane habitat. That’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision,” she told me. “Fish and Wildlife Service said, ‘We don’t want farms in less than two and a half feet of water because we’re worried that wading birds will walk into them and get entangled.’ And I said, ‘Okay, so I’ll put that into the tool.’ ”
Clarkson likens searching for acceptable sites to playing Tetris, the video game that requires a player to rapidly fit together a cascade of geometric shapes as they fall faster and faster from the top of the screen. Her tool displays amoebalike areas of pink and red “conflicts” on a greenish-blue map of the water. Farmers must place any desired acreage among the conflicts and at least one thousand feet from shore. Unfortunately for Lomax, he was the first to complete the laborious process with Parks and Wildlife. Clarkson and the agency were, in many ways, learning as they went (especially regarding the requirements of other regulatory bodies), just as he was. For instance, Lomax’s preferred site had to change when it was discovered that the GLO required that the farm be at least one thousand feet not only from a nearby abandoned oil well but also from the entire GLO lease on which the well sat.
Parks and Wildlife also had to figure out how much flexibility to afford Lomax. The regulations said a farm couldn’t come within 200 feet of seagrass, which serves as both cover and food for a variety of species. But did that mean even just a single blade of seagrass that’s 199 feet away? “Not only was it, ‘Oh, we have to figure out an answer to this,’ ” said Clarkson, “but we have to do it in a way that we’re going to be okay with the precedent that we set for all farms that come after this. So there’s a lot of pressure.”
Months passed before Lomax completed the necessary environmental surveys and settled on a site that passed muster. In January 2021, he submitted his application to Parks and Wildlife, around the same time he’d once (perhaps foolishly) hoped to put baby oysters into the water. That kicked off a monthslong review process by all the agencies involved. “There were entire weeks in the regulatory process where you didn’t know if you did any good or not,” he said. “You were busting your ass, and you had no idea if you made any progress. I hated Fridays, because that meant another week had gone by without a permit.”
Finally, on July 26, 2021, the first Cultivated Oyster Mariculture Permit in the state of Texas was issued to Lomax. “We’ll never build the industry—we’ll never fulfill all the promises that were made in the 2019 legislative session—if it takes this much grief and money to get a permit,” he said. Clarkson, however, believes the process moved as swiftly as could have been expected. “It was six months total. That is actually exceptional,” she said. “I think that people who aren’t used to going through the permitting process don’t realize how long it takes.” Indeed, sources familiar with mariculture programs elsewhere said some states move even more slowly—twelve to fifteen months in Alabama and potentially years in Georgia, because the state restricts the number of farms via a lottery system.
Regardless, Lomax was officially free to begin growing oysters on eight acres in Copano Bay, near the stilt house he’d converted into the headquarters of his newly formed Texas Oyster Company. Now he needed to install his farm equipment, and he needed some baby oysters.
Nature, of course, has done a perfectly fine job of growing oysters for millions of years. Each summer, the wild oysters native to the Gulf Coast release eggs and sperm into the water, which combine to produce larvae that eventually find a hard surface to settle upon—ideally an old bit of shell—where they transform into what we would recognize as oysters and begin growing into maturity. Unless you want a mouthful of milky gametes, you don’t want to eat a wild oyster harvested during spawning season. Oysters reach their peak meatiness, and tastiness, in the winter.
But most of today’s farmed oysters are mutants, known as triploids because they have three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two. Triploids almost never reproduce—much like seedless watermelons, which are also selectively bred—so the energy that would have been spent on reproduction gets redirected into continuous growth. This generally yields plumper, meatier oysters that can be harvested and enjoyed—gamete free—any time of the year.
Triploid oysters are bred at hatcheries, which presented yet another challenge for Lomax, since there are not yet any commercial hatcheries in Texas selling seed oysters. To protect the genetic line of the state’s wild
oysters, Parks and Wildlife won’t allow the importation of oysters from elsewhere to stock farms. What the agency has allowed farmers to do—at least until a Texas hatchery is up and running—is ship native Texas oysters to out-of-state hatcheries to be crossbred into triploid seed oysters. Lomax did this with hatcheries in Grand Isle, Louisiana; Ocean Springs, Mississippi; and Alabama’s Dauphin Island, hedging his bets to ensure he’d have a batch to plant once his farm was ready. (He was glad he did, after the Mississippi batch failed to grow and the Louisiana batch was wiped out by a storm.)
The day for the seeding finally came on October 5, 2021. A nearly cloudless sky and temperatures in the seventies made for ideal conditions—at least above the water. Below, salinity levels remained dangerously low. When Lomax pulled his truck up to the stilt house that morning, he was met by the farm manager he’d recently hired, Bobby Edwards, a bald and bearded 31-year-old Alabaman and environmental science graduate student who had previously run an oyster farm in Florida. “Bobby is an unbelievable combination of smarts and Alabama redneck,” Lomax said. Also on the farm staff was Keith Bass, a 33-year-old Corpus Christi native who carries himself with the same laid-back surfer vibe—and longish blond hair bound in a ponytail—as Lomax.
The three of them pulled from the box what looked like an overstuffed white sock filled with the 100,000 seed oysters. Instead of stocking their entire supply—about 1.5 million total at the Alabama hatchery—they’d decided to get this smaller batch into the water and see how it responded to the difficult conditions before obtaining the remainder the following week.
Edwards poured a handful of the seed oysters onto a picnic table. They looked just like fully grown oysters, only smaller than the tip of his thumb. With digital calipers, he measured one at six millimeters, or a little less than one quarter inch across. It and its brethren would need to grow to at least two and a half inches before they could be legally harvested.
How long that would take was a matter of speculation. Warm water offers Gulf state farms advantages not enjoyed by farms on the East and West Coasts, which operate in considerably colder conditions. In the icy waters around Canada or Alaska, it can take as long as three to four years for oysters to grow to maturity. Fox’s Palacios Marine Agriculture Research Center—which began operating in 2020—had grown harvest-size oysters in just seven to eight months, but that was with healthier salinity levels than Lomax’s babies were about to experience. Edwards hoped for somewhere between eight and twelve months, assuming the seed oysters survived.
When we talk about oyster farming, we’re usually talking about “off-bottom” mariculture. Wild oysters grow on reefs down near the muck of the seafloor. Most cultivated oysters, on the other hand, live their lives closer to the surface. This makes for easier maintenance for farmers, fewer predators (such as crabs), and cleaner oysters. Prettier and more consistent in size and appearance, farmed oysters are typically intended to be eaten raw on the half shell—and priced at a premium—rather than grilled or baked or fried.
Various types of gear have been developed for farming, but most commonly the oysters grow in bags, baskets, or cages. Lomax had chosen a system in which the oysters are placed in mesh bags, and groups of those bags slide into cages attached to small pontoons. After the permit was granted, Edwards and Bass had suited up in scuba gear and driven galvanized steel anchors six feet into the bay bottom. They attached polypropylene lines to the anchors, on which the cages would float just below the surface.
Using a stemless wine glass Edwards had fetched from the upstairs kitchen, Lomax distributed the seed oysters into roughly equal groups among a dozen bags, which they then carried down to the end of the pier to load onto a boat. Bass, Edwards, and Lomax climbed in, each wearing board shorts, a T-shirt, and sunglasses. The day wasn’t windy—like so many days on Copano Bay can be—so the ride through the shallow water was relatively smooth.
Two lines of empty wire cages, floating above the water on their pontoons, were visible as the trio approached the farm site. Bass drove the boat up alongside one line, and then he and Edwards reached down and pulled a cage from the water. They hooked one of its cylindrical pontoons onto the side of the boat, where it stabilized the cage to rest on the edge of the craft. Then they flipped open one end of the cage, revealing two rows of three slots. Lomax picked up the oyster bags one by one and slid them into the slots. Next, he closed the cage door, and together the men flipped the gear back into the water, so that the cage was below the surface with only its two pontoons visible above. Then Bass and Edwards pulled up the next cage on the line, and they repeated the process with the remaining six bags.
Much to their relief, those 100,000 babies didn’t immediately die off en masse, despite the challenging environment. One week later, Edwards borrowed Lomax’s Tundra to pick up their remaining 1.4 million seed oysters from the Alabama hatchery. He piled them into coolers in the truck’s covered bed and drove them as fast as he could back to Copano Bay. A few extra hands helped get them into the bags, then the cages, and at last into the water. The first commercial oyster farm in the state was in business.
Six months later, I witnessed illegal activity on Brad Lomax’s farm. Or, I should say, I saw for myself the frustrations of launching a new business that the state is still learning to regulate. To shape oyster cups to house more meat, farmers periodically tumble them. The process often involves pouring a bag of oysters into a rotating metallic cylinder that sorts them by size and knocks the rougher edges off the shell. With their ability to grow wider thus stunted, they go deeper instead.
Some states require this tumbling be performed on a boat anchored out by a farm site, for fear of the environmental impact of carting the oysters repeatedly back and forth to the shore. But Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rules don’t allow tumbling on the water, out of concern that the process might kick up sediment from the bay floor, affecting the health of the surrounding wildlife.
In response, Lomax had his tumbler—a massive piece of machinery with a spinning cylinder that’s about twelve feet long and three feet in diameter—installed on land, near the pier. Only afterward did Parks and Wildlife inform him that tumbling the oysters on land was a violation of the regulations forbidding oysters’ removal from the farm for any reason other than harvesting, and then only once they’d reached the minimum two and a half inches in size. Parks and Wildlife hadn’t been aware of the TCEQ rules and therefore hadn’t factored in the need for tumbling on land.
Lindsay Campbell, who took over management of Parks and Wildlife’s oyster mariculture program from Clarkson at the start of 2022 (Clarkson is now the ecosystem resources program director), said she plans to include the matter among other changes to the Texas Administrative Code that she’ll suggest to the Parks and Wildlife Commission. “We realize that there are things that, in concept, when regulations were first put in place, need a little tweaking in practice,” she said.
Another rule that Lomax wishes would be addressed is the forbidding of the use of a pressure washer to clean the cages of algae and barnacles, which can greatly restrict the flow of water to the oysters. Twice a month, his team flips the cages atop their pontoons, which allows the open air to work its magic on the interlopers. But anything that remains has to be manually scrubbed off with a brush. Some states allow the more expedient pressure washing, but Texas regulators fear the practice could blast tiny bits of sunlight-blocking algae and barnacles into nearby habitats. Campbell indicated that Parks and Wildlife may lift its ban on pressure washing and is working with TCEQ to determine whether the practice could be permitted under its rules.
But Lomax can’t blame the state for what befell his first batch of oysters. Once again, heavy rains upstream had dumped unusual quantities of fresh water into the bay over the winter, and the salinity level remained low. While oyster farmers must expect to lose some percentage of their seed oysters—Lomax had budgeted for 30 percent mortality—roughly 50 percent of the farm’s initial 1.5 million seed oysters had died by the spring, when I returned to check on their progress.
The Texas Oyster Company had also confronted the peculiar challenges of farming in the sort of shallow, windswept bays that make up much of the Texas coast. The most common gear for oyster farming was developed in Canada and Australia—places with deeper waters that are better sheltered from the wind. The gear Lomax purchased couldn’t withstand the 55-mile-per-hour gusts that sometimes swept Copano. Lines snapped, and cages blew across the bay, forcing Edwards and Bass to hunt them down. Lomax had to replace the original lines with steel cables.
The previous fall’s optimism of a harvest in May or June had yielded to reality. Some of the remaining oysters had reached a size of two inches across, but they’d need another half an inch before they could legally be harvested. Lomax planned to hold out for even larger specimens—two and three quarters or three inches. “I want to make a splash,” he told me. “There’s been so much talk about it, and so much anticipation, I want to wow them coming out of the gate.”
But despite being the first farmer with a permit and the first to put seed oysters into the water, Lomax wasn’t the first out of that gate. The week before my April visit to the farm, the first commercially cultivated oysters in the state of Texas had been harvested from East Galveston Bay and served in a restaurant in the tiny community of San Leon.
Hannah Kaplan was living in Aspen when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the hotel where she worked. So the 30-year-old Houston native decided to turn to oyster farming.
It was her father’s idea. Joe Kaplan, a 68-year-old serial entrepreneur, had a friend who’d recently opened a farm in Florida, and with the impending arrival of the industry in Texas, he saw an opportunity. Jewish and generally observant of a kosher diet—which forbids the consumption of shellfish—Hannah had never eaten an oyster until they launched their farming venture. “I have a very sensitive stomach. I actually don’t eat much seafood,” she said.
She told me that she would have beaten Lomax to the state’s first oyster mariculture permit if she hadn’t suffered serious injuries in a skiing accident two days after she submitted her application, in January 2021. “I couldn’t work for about four months,” she said. “So Brad got his permit first.” Lomax also beat her to putting oysters into the water, though only by a matter of days. Kaplan’s farm seeded 500,000 in October 2021, the same week that Lomax planted his second batch of 1.4 million. Her lease, slightly less than ten acres and a short boat ride off the north side of the Bolivar Peninsula, is a smaller operation than Lomax’s and runs out of a rented corrugated-metal boathouse. The Kaplans also opted for less expensive gear. Their oysters are growing in mesh bags attached to floats and clipped directly to the lines rather than sitting inside cages.
Yet overall conditions for oyster farming had been more favorable for East Galveston Bay than Copano. The salinity level stayed close to ideal in the months after Kaplan’s seeding, and the farm saw fast growth and scant mortality. By mid-April, some of her oysters had already reached the two-and-a-half-inch minimum for harvesting. So she put 138 of them on ice and drove to Prestige Oysters, a distributor with which she’d made an agreement for getting her bivalves, branded as Barrier Beauties, into restaurants. That night they were on the menu at Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House, the San Leon restaurant owned by Raz Halili, who is also the vice president of Prestige, a family-run business founded by his father.
On April 28, I tagged along with Kaplan as she drove her second-ever harvest to Prestige, whose surprisingly sleek offices are located atop one of its processing facilities, in San Leon. She had used a metal gauge with a two-and-a-half-inch cutout to painstakingly measure the oysters one by one, plucked out of the pair of bags her general manager, Gordon Lipscomb, had retrieved from the farm that morning. He’d advised her to let them grow to a larger size, believing that that’s what most diners expected of Texas oysters, but she was eager to get more Barrier Beauties to market. “I want to be different than the wild oysters,” she told me. “I want to be a boutique oyster.”
Prestige is one of a handful of outfits that together control most of the private oyster leases authorized by the state, all of which sit in Galveston Bay. Between its leases in Texas and Louisiana, the company and its fleet of 35 boats maintain and harvest from 40,000 acres of private oyster reefs. One of its leases is only about 800 feet from the Kaplan farm. But Halili views the arrival of farm-raised oysters in Texas as a complement rather than a threat to the wild oyster fishery that is his business’s bread and butter. Oyster aficionados, who savor them raw on the half shell, will talk about “merroir”—how the environment in which the creature grows affects its flavor—much as wine lovers discuss terroir. Halili praised the briny taste of the Barrier Beauties. “It’s a lot like wine,” he said. “You have large-scale wineries and specialized boutique farms in Napa Valley, where you can kind of really define how you want that wine to taste.”
These first farm-raised Texas oysters arrive at a time when those who work the state’s wild fishery are worrying about their futures. If the state continues to routinely close bays to allow damaged reefs to recover, how are they going to make a living?
Oyster farming could be a potential avenue, one that Joe Fox thinks would be beneficial both for the fishers and the natural reefs. Many marine scientists describe the common practice of dredging—running a large, rakelike metal scoop along the bottom of a bay to catch wild oysters—as a particularly destructive form of fishing. Some fishers, Halili among them, disagree. “The best analogy I come up with,” he said, “is, think of raking the leaves off the top of your lawn. You’re taking that layer on the top, the leaves. You’re not really digging into your lawn and tearing up the grass.” Regardless, the collapse in the state’s wild oyster population in recent years is indisputable, and a continued dearth in supply would make for an untenable situation for those who support themselves by oystering.
Bailey Schacht, one of two technicians who operate the oyster farm at the Palacios research center, believes a shift to mariculture could provide more consistency for many fishers. “Especially in recent years, with so many closures in Texas, the wild fishery has gotten to be very undependable,” she said.
Yet sizable obstacles remain for any fisher thinking of transitioning to farming, not least of which are the time it takes to identify a lease site and the financial commitments (buying gear, paying for the expensive surveys required to earn a permit). Relatively few Texans have the financial wherewithal, and the flexibility afforded by semiretirement, of a successful restaurateur such as Lomax. Just before his first seeding, he told me he and his partners had already spent about $450,000, plus the cost of acquiring their bayfront property and house (valued at more than $200,000 by the Aransas County Appraisal District).
In some states, the government takes a bit of the burden off of this process by preapproving a block of acreage—sometimes called an aquapark—for oyster farming and then subleasing portions of that to farmers. This spares the farmers expensive environmental reviews and months of potential headaches in dealing with state agencies. Clarkson, at Parks and Wildlife, said her department considered such a program. “I think that those aggregates are better for people who don’t have a lot of start-up funding, for people who just want to lease a plot and can’t do ten acres, and they can only do a little quarter-acre plot,” she said.
But two factors contributed to the abandonment of the aggregate approach. For one, Parks and Wildlife would have had to pay considerable up-front costs without knowing if farmers would apply to lease at the sites. More important, the agency encountered pushback from the public, Lomax included. He told me that the agency initially presented the aggregate approach as the only option. Farmers would not have been able to choose their own sites, which he believed would have made it more difficult to differentiate his product. However, he now believes that the state or local governments should support some form of aquaparks to help smaller players get into the business, and Parks and Wildlife says it’s revisiting the option.
Another potential obstacle to getting more fishers to switch to farming is language. A significant number of wild oyster harvesters in Texas primarily or solely speak Spanish, and some of the resources available to assist would-be farmers have so far been offered only in English. These include a program initiated by Texas Sea Grant—a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and universities across the state—that hosts oyster mariculture workshops at several sites along the coast.
The program is run by Mario Marquez, a cheerful Brownsville native and environmental scientist, out of an office at the Palacios research center. There he fields calls from Texans interested in growing bivalves, advising them on resources such as low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, for which oyster farmers qualify. Marquez, who is bilingual, is seeking NOAA grant money to fund a series of Spanish-language workshops, as well as the translation of oyster mariculture materials. If he’s successful, that effort will likely begin in mid 2023.
On the afternoon of July 20, 2022, Lomax once again loaded oysters into his truck for a short trip over Corpus Christi Bay. This time it was a mere 1,200, loaded into mesh sacks inside a gray Igloo cooler and surrounded by bags of Reddy Ice. To comply with state regulations, he’d affixed to his tailgate two large, white magnetic signs with black lettering reading “FISH.” More than three years after Lomax had wandered the state Capitol as a mariculture lobbyist, nearly two years since I’d first spoken to him about his ambitions, and almost exactly one year after he’d received his permit, his oysters were ready to be served at Water Street.
They were carried through the restaurant’s back door and kitchen, then over to the side room with the raw bar, where staff got to work shucking the oysters and setting them on a bed of crushed ice near bowls of cocktail sauce, horseradish, lemon, and saltines. Ever the consummate host, Lomax had invited a score of family members and friends, along with state representative Hunter and me, to be the first to sample them.
They were noticeably cleaner, more consistently rounded, and on average smaller than wild-caught oysters. Picking one up and prying the meat out of the half shell and into my mouth delivered a pleasantly balanced blast of briny flavor. “They’re really good—real salty and grassy,” Richard Lomax said. “You can tell there’s a lot of algae in the bay. It’s like you can taste the algae, and it’s very different.”
For his boutique product to command the prices that top-tier farms on the East Coast or in the Pacific Northwest can—$3 to $4 per oyster in upscale restaurants—Lomax knew early on that he had to differentiate it from the typical wild Gulf Coast oyster. He’d considered several potential names for his product, Copano Cuties and Copano Selects among them. But after working with an Austin branding firm, he named them Copano Unos, to lean into his status as holder of the first oyster mariculture permit in the state.
Freshly cleaned up after that morning’s harvest, Edwards and Bass sampled the fruits of their labor. The pair wore T-shirts that sported, on the front, a small representation of the shape of Texas with a curved oyster superimposed over the state’s eastern half. On the back was the company’s new name—Texas Oyster Ranch—and the phrase “Permit No. 0001” below.
As the group enjoyed drinks and noshed on Copano Unos, a pair of chafing dishes of baked Gulf oysters were set on a side table next to which Lomax stepped up to make an announcement. Holding an oyster fork in his right hand and wearing a red plaid shirt, cargo shorts, and sneakers, he said, “We’re going to do a quick first purchase of a Texas Oyster Ranch Copano Uno oyster. Representative Hunter’s going to do that. We’re not taking any checks from Representative Hunter—cash or credit card.”
Dressed all in black, as is his habit, Hunter made a show of pulling out a crisp $20 bill and holding it high for all to see. “I’m putting my money on the table,” he said. Three round metal trays of Copano Unos were soon also set down there and at a neighboring table. The group raised a toast to the Texas Oyster Ranch while Lomax beamed and bounced his four-year-old grandson on his lap.
Upon delivery of Lomax’s cooler of oysters, Water Street had cut Texas Oyster Ranch its first-ever check: $960. That’s a small sum compared with the hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent to get the farm up and running. But with the potential for more and more oysters to be harvest-ready each day, Lomax had plenty reason to smile.
Having followed his travails for more than two years, I probably shouldn’t have been quite so surprised that Lomax’s good fortune didn’t last. He sent me this text message in mid-September: “Bobby Edwards is no longer working with us. Not a terrible divorce but a little messy. Both parties better for the initial union and even better for the eventual split. I have custody of the 500,000 children.”
Not long after that celebratory oyster feast at Water Street in July, Edwards and the crew were about to install new cages on one of the farm’s oldest lines—one they thought was empty—when they learned that there were in fact cages on that line that had sunk. Tens of thousands of oysters had suffocated on the bottom of the bay. When it had happened was anybody’s guess.
As the general manager, Edwards immediately accepted responsibility for the dead oysters. He admitted that he’d lost track of cages. But when I called him in late September, he told me, “There’s nothing that [Lomax] could say that I did wrong. I just would interpret it a different way and say it differently.” He also cited Lomax’s purchase of secondhand gear, which had allowed cages to slip free of their pontoons, as a contributing factor. Lomax told me that was possible, since they deal with equipment failures fairly often, but that the disaster might have been averted if the cages had been properly tracked. They hadn’t known any were missing.
There’s disagreement about the extent of the damage as well. Edwards said he’s aware of about 20,000 to 30,000 oysters dead in the sunken cages. But Lomax fears that roughly 500,000 oysters were lost, not just because of the sunken cages but from other failures in the farm’s tracking system. At a 50-cent wholesale price per oyster, that would represent $250,000 in lost revenue. “If we end up harvesting 250,000 out of the 1.5 million stock, I will be ecstatic,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Texas oyster mariculture industry has continued to grow, albeit slowly. David Aparicio, a 27-year-old third-generation shrimper from Palacios, got the state’s third permit in March, seeded 560,000 oysters in Matagorda Bay in July, and hopes for his first harvest in February. As of late October, two more farms—one in Aransas Bay, the other in Copano—had received conditional permits from Parks and Wildlife and were working through the process with the other agencies. A sixth farm, in Galveston Bay, was in the final stages before receiving its conditional permit. And the agency was in the process of reviewing the seventh and eighth applications, for two more Copano Bay farms.
A Texas A&M AgriLife center in the Flour Bluff area of Corpus Christi was permitted in September as the state’s first oyster nursery and hatchery. The facility is primarily geared to research, but it will be allowed to sell excess seed oysters to farmers. Fox’s research center in Palacios, meanwhile, got a permit in early November for a mobile hatchery and plans to build a permanent hatchery on another waterfront property it recently acquired nearby. Fox hopes the hatchery will supply both the center’s own researchers and the commercial industry, at least a limited amount, starting sometime next year.
Kaplan has continued to send a steady supply of harvested oysters in small batches to Prestige, through which Barrier Beauties have been served not just at Pier 6 but at restaurants in Houston, such as Ford Fry’s La Lucha. Her farm has had a few setbacks—including a storm in mid-June that ripped 200 bags off their lines, of which about 150 were recovered—but nothing seemingly on the scale of Lomax’s losses. Lipscomb, the general manager, seeded another 500,000 oysters in the late summer and early fall. Kaplan also no longer plucks oysters from the water as soon as they reach two and a half inches. As Lipscomb predicted, customers seem to expect the larger Texas oysters they’re used to. “We did get a little bit of mixed reviews about the small size at restaurants,” she said. “It’s turned out to be harder to educate the consumers than we originally thought.”
Texas Sea Grant is planning a January 9 event for chefs, seafood distributors, and select media at Quality Seafood Market, in Austin, to demonstrate how well farmed Texas oysters measure up to highly prized farmed oysters from elsewhere. It’s the first of a series of events Mario Marquez hopes to host around the state. Samples of Lomax’s Copano Unos and Kaplan’s Barrier Beauties will be showcased. “It’s like, these are different choices from your backyard. Let’s taste what’s been growing in your backyard,” Marquez said.
Lomax’s oysters remained exclusive to Water Street until a few months ago, when Lomax sent a sample to the owner of Quality Seafood, Carol Huntsberger, and she’d asked him for more. “I’m a wholesaler also,” she told me, “so I sent samples out to different restaurants. And then we just had a great response in our restaurant over the oysters.”
While most other restaurants were hesitant to put the Lomax oysters on their menus until the Texas oyster season began, in November, the two Austin-area locations of Salt Traders Coastal Cooking listed them for $3.50 each in September, next to farmed oysters from Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island, in Canada. The news was exciting to Lomax, but it also reminded him of the opportunity cost of not having nearly as many oysters to sell now as he’d planned. He made Bass the farm’s new manager and hopes to get back on track and generate enough revenue to at least cover his expenses by February.
I asked him if he would have jumped into oyster farming if he’d known in advance the challenges he would face. He insisted that he would have. “You do the best you can, but it’s still a throw of the dice,” he said. “That’s going to happen in any business. That’s going to happen to us again. I guarantee it. But nothing deters me from it, and it’s been a kick in the shin, but it hasn’t been a kick in the groin.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Reconsider the Oyster.” Subscribe today.