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Texas Oyster Industry Hurt as Red Tide Sweeps Coast
By ROSS E. MILLOY
MITH POINT, Tex., Oct. 1 - On an ordinary Saturday in oyster season, Jeri Nelson's ramshackle docks here on Galveston Bay would be bustling: boats pulling up to unload their catches, fishermen pitching crates of oysters onto conveyor belts, workers busy in the shucking house, 18-wheel trucks shuttling out with loads of fresh oysters on the way to market.
But this Saturday was anything but ordinary, and Mrs. Nelson sat in the deserted offices of Jeri's Seafoods using nautical charts to track the spread of red tide, a toxic algae bloom that forced Texas officials last month to close Galveston Bay to oyster fishing.
"It's in West Bay, East Bay, Trinity Bay, Matagorda Bay and down here in Espiritu Santo Bay," said Mrs. Nelson, who has been in the oyster business since 1961. "It's all over the gulf, and down south, that's not so unusual. But this is the first time we've ever had it in Galveston Bay."
David Buzan, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said nearly 300 miles of coast from Smith Point south to Corpus Christi are suffering from red tide, which is caused by a microscopic organism called Gymnodinium breve that releases toxins and depletes oxygen from the water.
The organism kills fish, contaminates shellfish, irritates eyes and respiratory systems in humans and turns seawater the color of rust, Mr. Buzan said.
"We know we've lost several million fish so far, but it's still too early to get an accurate picture of what is happening out there on the water," he said. "Unfortunately, we have no idea of how long it's going to last."
Red tides killed more than 21 million fish in 1986 and again in 1997, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for the $1 billion-a-year Texas fishing industry, he said.
"My sense is that this event will not be as bad as those," Mr. Buzan said, "but only time will tell."
A significant rainfall would reduce salinity levels in Texas bays and kill the algae, Mr. Buzan said, and a hard freeze would inhibit its growth. "But it's been so long since we've seen rain in Texas that you hate to hang your hat on that hope," he said. And in Smith Point, hard freezes are as infrequent as a smog-free view of Houston across the bay.
Though the oyster season in Texas was scheduled to reopen on Nov. 1, unless the red tide is gone by then, "there's a strong likelihood that all these bays will remain closed," Mr. Buzan said. "The economic losses will undoubtedly be significant."
Mrs. Nelson's business has already been hurt. Her husband and brother have taken the family's four fishing boats to Louisiana to find oysters, their two refrigerated trucks stand idle in the parking lot, and she is struggling to find work for her 120 employees, a difficult task in this village of about 200 residents.
"It's hard right now," she said. "My workers aren't able to make their bills."
Mrs. Nelson said she was trying to keep her customers supplied by buying oysters from other dealers and reselling them, "but we're not making any money that way."
"It's a losing battle," she said, "and I'm not sure how long we can hold out."
When Galveston Bay is open to oystering, Mrs. Nelson normally ships 3,000 to 7,000 pounds of oysters a day; now she is lucky to ship that many in a week, she said.
Across East Galveston Bay at the Hornbeck Seafood Company in Port Bolivar, Ronnie Hornbeck, 60, said this was the worst red tide he had seen in more than 50 years. "It's just killed the hell out of the fish, and the worst is yet to come," he said.
Texas' prolonged drought and record-breaking summer heat, which deprived bays of fresh water and encouraged growth of the red tide, have combined with an unusual influx of seagrass to choke fish in the water, Mr. Hornbeck said.
Because red tide tends to stay on top of the water, he said, migrating fish have been particularly hard hit.
Mr. Hornbeck said that migrating fish move into shallow water to spawn beneath the layer of water affected by Gymnodinium breve and are trapped when the tide falls.
The fall migration of flounder has started, he said, and thousands of the fish have been killed. He said that along one stretch of shore last week, he had seen a five-mile-long, two- foot-wide line of dead fish.
"My shrimpers coming in from offshore in the gulf are telling me that they're seeing acres and acres of dead fish floating for miles on the surface out there," Mr. Hornbeck said. He estimated that 50 million pounds of fish have been killed, most of which have been forage fish without significant commercial value.
"The good news is that the fishing around here next year is going to be great, because we're getting rid of a lot of the trash fish that eat the eggs and young of gamefish like trout and redfish," he said.
Though hotels on Galveston Island have reported no cancellations, residents have noticed the red tide.
"It choked me up something terrible," said Alton Cripps, a retired ship captain from Port Bolivar. "I made an appointment with a doctor because I thought sure I was dying, but then I saw in the paper where it was just that old red tide. Now, I'm just going to wait it out."
How long he will have to wait is anyone's guess.
"These things are not very well understood," said Mike Ordner, an assistant director for seafood safety at the Texas Department of Health. "Breve likes salty water, and the only thing that will help is enough fresh water to flush out the bays."
Mrs. Nelson said: "God forgive me for saying it, but we need a good hurricane. One nice, big hurricane. That's all we need."