About a mile off the Bolivar Peninsula, near Goat Island, black mesh bags full of oysters from a local oyster farm bob on the waves. Far away, they look like a flock of birds. Comments on Facebook had a few different ideas when they were first installed, according to farm founder Hannah Kaplan.
“It’s an alien landing site, it’s the CIA doing secret research, or it’s a trap for your boats or something like that,” she said. “People were very interested in what was going on.”
Kaplan is the founder of Barrier Beauties, the second permitted oyster farm in the state. In 2019, Texas became one of the last coastal states in the United States to allow oyster mariculture. More than three years later, the first farms have had their initial harvest, and interest in the industry is growing.
This growth in the state’s oyster farming industry comes as wild Texas oysters have fared poorly over the past decade, suffering from droughts, flooding events and hurricanes. At the moment, the majority of reefs are already closed to harvesting – although the wild oyster season is meant to remain open until April.
While farmed oysters would not replace wild oysters, experts say they could help relieve some of the harvesting pressure or provide another option for out-of-work oyster harvesters.
“I think oyster farming is one tool in the toolbox when it comes to how to create a more sustainable oyster industry in Texas,” said Lauren Williams, The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Coast Program Director for Texas.
Williams said farmed oysters can provide some of the same natural benefits as wild oysters, such as improving water quality.
“There are studies that have shown that in some areas where you have oyster aquaculture, seagrass has come back in adjacent areas because the water clarity has improved,” Williams said. “So mariculture oysters definitely provide some of the same services as wild oysters.”
Not all oysters are created equal
When it comes to harvesting, farming sisters tend to go to a specific market.
“Oysters that are maricultured tend to just be prettier, and so they’re more attractive to the on-the-shell market,” Williams said.
Part of the reason is because of the farming practices in place, according to Kaplan, the founder of Barrier Beauties.
Kaplan’s oysters are grown in bags that float at the top of the water column. They are attached with clips to lines anchored to the seabed on her 10-acre property. As the oysters grow larger, they transfer them to larger bags – a process known as splitting – to give them more room to grow.
Another farming practice is called tumbling, where the oysters are placed in a rotating tube.
“It helps to cut the edges so they grow with a deeper cup,” Kaplan said.
Tumbling is part of the oyster harvesting process. The machine chips off the edges so they grow deeper instead of longer. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
The tumbler at Barrier Beauties oyster farm on the Bolivar Peninsula. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
Kaplan looks at one of the mesh bags used to grow the oysters. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
Kaplan said she looked into oyster farming after her previous job was shut down due to the pandemic. Her father had a friend with an oyster farm in Florida, and being part of a new Texas industry sounded exciting. Kaplan said she grew up keeping kosher and one of the first oysters she ever ate was from her farm.
“I was actually really surprised at how much I liked them,” she said. Kaplan said the oysters from her farm “have a very nice salty flavor with a little sweetness.”
Farming sisters are like good wine in that they taste different depending on where they are grown. It also means that each farm in Texas has its own unique flavor, according to Mario Marquez, the aquaculture specialist with Texas Sea Grant.
“Every bay and estuary in Texas is different,” he said. “That’s the beauty of farming – the oysters are not all going to taste the same.”
Marquez owned an oyster farm in Florida. Now he helps those interested in joining the new Texas industry navigate the process from permitting to finding loans and partnering with restaurants.
“People call me if they’re interested in oyster farming,” Marquez. “I hold their hand until they don’t need me to hold their hand anymore.”
Jumpstart an industry
Mesh bags from Hannah Kaplan’s farm off the Bolivar Peninsula float on the waves. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
The farmed oysters float in mesh bags with different sized holes depending on how big the oysters are. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Barrier Beauties)
Oyster mariculture dates all the way back to the Romans, and oyster farming in the United States first appeared as early as the 1820s in states like Connecticut. Texas was late to the game.
“Texas was not even able to compete or participate in that opportunity,” said Joe Fox, who is now executive director of the Palacios Marine Agriculture Research Institute. Prior to that, he worked at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and helped start the oyster farming industry in Texas.
Fox said a small group of researchers began discussing the possibility when they learned about the funding that would be available to Texas in settlement money from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At the same time, the population of wild oysters was in decline.
“The fall had gone down pretty steeply, and we said ‘this is one of the ways we can help save oysters for the state, where people will be able to continue to buy Texas oysters,'” Fox said. “And so we said, well , you know, we have to draft some legislation and propose it to the state.”
Fox said it was pretty easy to get people on board — lawmakers, the restaurant industry and the Coastal Conservation Association. In 2019, a bill passed authorizing Texas Parks & Wildlife to develop the program.
“In a very short period of time, we had kind of started an industry,” Fox said.
Gordon Lipscomb, general manager of Barrier Beauties, takes the boat out to check the oysters. (Photo credit: Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media)
Kaplan’s farmed sisters grow in mesh bags that float at the top of the water column. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Barrier Beauties)
Still, getting started had its challenges. First, Texas does not yet have any oyster hatcheries or nurseries in operation, meaning farms would have to work with hatcheries in other states.
“To do that there were a lot of permits and steps that were necessary to make sure you weren’t bringing back into Texas contaminated or infected oysters or anything like that,” Fox said.
Another challenge is that although Texas Parks & Wildlife issues the master permit, there are also components that must be signed off by TCEQ, GLO, the US Coast Guard and, in some cases, the Army Corps of Engineers.
“Trying to figure out who has what jurisdiction and coordinating all these industries together — I think that’s the frustrating part both for regulators and also obviously for the business owners,” said Lindsay Campbell, who oversees the oyster mariculture permit process for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Despite the challenges, there are now three farms operating in the state, including Kaplan’s. Five more farms have received conditional permits and a few other applications are in the works, according to Campbell.
“We’ve seen a lot of uptake in interest,” Campbell said. “I think it’s a growing industry that’s really going to take off, especially now that we’ve gone through one harvest of the fully permitted sites.”