Oyster summit highlights future of Texas seafood

Local News

Shucking Oysters (KXAN Photo / Wes Rapaport)

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Nexstar) — State Rep. Todd Hunter loves Texas seafood. Being a coastal representative, he believes travel, tourism and conservation are big issues. That’s one of the reasons he spearheaded an effort to create legal framework for oyster farming in Texas.

“To me, there is nothing better than Texas seafood,” the Corpus Christi Republican said.

“Most of the oysters in restaurants and at functions are not Texas oysters,” Rep. Hunter said. “I was approached by different folks saying, ‘Todd, we need to bring the Texas oyster back.’”

Shucking Oysters (KXAN Photo / Wes Rapaport)

Hunter filed House Bill 1300, which aims to reinvigorate the oyster industry by requiring a string of state agencies to craft criteria, rules and fees “for the implementation of a cultivated oyster mariculture permit program in Texas coastal waters.” It passed the legislature during the 86th session.

Those agencies include Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Department of State Health Services, the state’s General Land Office, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“Texas is the only coastal state that does not currently have commercial oyster farming,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a video recorded on the day he signed the legislation, which Hunter later posted online. “Oyster production as a result has hit a 20-year low.”

“We are taking action to change this and to provide another boost to the Texas economy,” Abbott said, flanked by lawmakers and other stakeholders involved with House Bill 1300. The legislation takes effect on Sept. 1.

To prepare for the updates to Texas law, Hunter and his team organized an oyster aquaculture summit in Corpus Christi on Wednesday. Hunter said the event aims to familiarize the public on how to get involved, the permitting process, and other mariculture education.

Gulf Coast Oysters (KXAN Photo / Wes Rapaport)

“To make sure that people who are interested have an opportunity to ask the various groups who are experts, basically know the science, who have been actually involved in farming, to find out how to do it, and to show the forecast as well as the economics going forward and the gains that will be made to the state of Texas,” Hunter explained.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, deliver the summit’s keynote address.

“Government usually gets in way of business and growth,” he told attendees. “In this instance, government is opening up the market, it is providing the opportunity.”

The Lomax family has fed and entertained Texans and tourists along the Coastal Bend for 35 years. Richard Lomax, president of WaterStreet Restaurants, said the family’s bar and restaurant located blocks from the water in Corpus Christi, will adjust operations– for the better– in response to the new oyster law.

“We like to eat Texas beef, we like to drink Texas wine and we want Texas seafood,” Lomax said.

“We are going to rebuild the seafood industry here,” he explained. “I am confident that Texas can grow the worlds best oyster, and we are about a year away from that.

Once the rules are implemented, penalties for farming oysters without a permit or in unauthorized locations could result in up to 180 days in jail or a $2,000 fine.

Oyster Shucking (KXAN Photo / Wes Rapaport)

According to a legislative analysis of House Bill 1300, opponents have said residents of other states voiced concerns that “the location of oyster farms can result in the loss of areas for recreational activities, such as swimming and boating.”

“Coastal waterfront property owners have also raised concerns about the presence of floating cages used in these commercial operations,” the analysis, published by the Legislative Budget Board, indicated. “Cultivated oyster mariculture operations also could reduce economic opportunity for some workers, including ecotourism operators, some recreational and commercial fishermen, and other coastal industry professionals.”

Lance Robinson, deputy director for Texas Parks and Wildlife’s coastal fisheries division, said he expects only minimal costs for the state to launch the program.

“We will work with the industry to streamline as much as we can, so I don’t think it’ll be a huge burden,” Robinson said.

“The return on the investment is going to be huge,” Hunter said. “You’re bringing in seafood to Texas from Texas, where you’re not having to go outside the state to bring it in.”

“You should see a big help not only to grocery stores, restaurants, but the individuals,” he continued. “It should actually bring in good economics for the restaurant industry across the state as well as any business that wants to be involved or sell oysters.”

Oysters (KXAN Photo / Wes Rapaport)

Lomax said his family purchased the flag that flew over the Texas Capitol on the day the legislation passed.

“We are going to frame it and say, ‘that’s the day the world became our oyster,’” Lomax said with a smile.

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