Habitat and Advocacy at the Forefront of Conservation

John Blaha
Habitat and Advocacy at the Forefront of Conservation
Triton Environmental Solutions employees plant freshly harvested plants.(Photo Courtesy of Triton Environmental Solutions)

Habitat creation and restoration, and a continued strong advocacy effort, remain at the forefront of CCA Texas’s conservation efforts. Habitat focus remains on oyster and marsh restoration, shoreline protection efforts, and nearshore reefing in Texas state waters.  CCA Texas and its habitat initiative, Habitat Today for Fish Tomorrow (HTFT), and Building Conservation Trust (BCT), CCA National’s habitat program, strongly believe in the continued support of projects once they are completed. This support comes in different ways including; public outreach to educate the public on the purpose of these efforts; follow-up studies and analysis to provide data that helps determine the success of a project, and creates best practices for creation and restoration efforts; and at times provides critical follow-up work to ensure the success and/or expansion of projects. Dickinson Bayou marsh restoration is a recent example of CCA’s commitment to ensure the continued success of projects.

Dickinson Bayou Marsh Restoration - When Hurricane Harvey rolled ashore in Texas in August 2017, it left a trail of destruction that is still being repaired today, and the recent habitat project along the banks of Dickinson Bayou put back repaired marsh that washed away in the storm’s extraordinary floods. CCA Texas supported the original Dickinson Bayou Restoration Project that enhanced and protected approximately 18 acres of tidal wetlands in 2016, but Hurricane Harvey took a heavy toll.  With the understanding and desire to see projects succeed and flourish, CCA Texas, BCT, and Shell Oil Company funded the efforts to replant two acres of marsh that will continue to help protect an additional 18 acres of wetlands in the project’s vicinity.

This is an area that is clearly vulnerable to erosion and so there is a need to make sure this project is solidly in place and can perform as originally intended. Real improvements in this area after the original project were evident, and the HTFT Committee felt strongly about continuing the support of the project. Mother Nature always has a hand in the success in projects, and CCA is committed to providing a helping hand when she produces unfavorable conditions.

The Dickinson Bayou Restoration Project is ultimately expected to improve water quality in the area and provide erosion protection for the surrounding marsh. Even in the short time before Harvey did his damage, the project was observed to have improved fish and wildlife habitat in the area and enhanced stormwater filtration in Dickinson Bayou. CCA Texas and BCT have contributed $100,000 to both phases of the project. The current replanting work utilized 10,000 smooth cordgrass plants from the NRG Energy Eco-Center and was completed the first week of April 2019. Follow-up visits to the project site are planned during the first week of June and CCA looks forward to seeing the success of this effort.

Oyster Management and Regulations – The management of the oyster fishery has been at the fore of CCA Texas Advocacy efforts since the last legislative session in 2017. The 85th legislative session brought important changes to the management of the fishery and enforcement of regulations within the fishery. Some of the key changes from the 85th session included increased fines, closure of upper-estuary bays, and tightening of requirements regarding undersize oysters. 

Each year the commercial oyster fishery opens November 1 and closes April 30 the following spring – effectively a six-month season. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) continually monitors public oyster reefs throughout the year by conducting random bi-monthly sampling in our bay systems. They will also conduct additional sampling before and during oyster season if feedback from law enforcement or the oyster industry triggers them to do so. Using metrics that TPWD has established based upon the abundance of oysters and the percentage of oysters less than 3-inches (minimum legal size) in their samples, they may close an area to commercial harvest. Once a bay system is closed it will take 1-2 years for the reefs to recover and then it can be re-opened by TPWD. The length of the closure period is highly dependent on environmental conditions and how hard it had been fished prior to the enactment of the closure. It is important that the reefs are given sufficient time to recover for the maintenance of a sustainable oyster fishery.

While the management changes in the 2017 legislative session were positive and place more burden on the commercial industry, there continues to be bad actors. These bad actors within the fishery continue to ignore the closures and continue to harvest oysters from closed waters, often targeting the undersized oysters remaining on the reefs. While there is an enhanced penalty structure for undersize oyster violations, there is no true deterrent for fishing in closed waters other than a Class C misdemeanor.  That soon may change thanks to Representative Geanie Morrison (R-30) and Senator Juan Chuy Hinojosa (D-30), who both are sponsoring legislation (House Bill 2321 and Senate Bill 671) to clean up language in current statute regarding harvesting undersize oysters and increased penalties for commercial oyster fishing in closed waters. If these legislative measures pass this spring, persons committing harvest violations can expect the following:

  • Class A misdemeanor for harvesting at night and either harvesting in closed waters or restricted waters during same criminal episode.
  • Class B misdemeanor for harvesting undersized oysters or harvesting in closed waters if defendant was previously convicted at least twice for violation regarding undersize oysters (less than 30% of cargo) and/or previously convicted for harvesting in closed waters.
  • Class B misdemeanor for second violation of possession of cargo of oysters greater than 30% undersize oysters.
  • Class A misdemeanor with attendant license suspension for third violation of possession of cargo greater than 30% undersized or fishing in closed waters.
  • State-level felony for harvesting at night and either harvesting in closed waters or restricted waters if the defendant has been previously convicted once before within five years for the same crime.

CCA Texas is committed to making positive change in the oyster fishery and will work tirelessly to do so. The eastern oyster and their reefs play critical roles in the coastal environment. They provide habitat for a variety of aquatic species, serve as food source for coastal food webs, improve shoreline stabilization, reduce coastal erosion and sedimentation and improve water quality. We refer to these roles as ecosystem services and according to published literature, the annual value of said services wildly ranges from $2.23K - $40K per acre. Bottom line – oysters are critical components of our coastal ecosystems and simply too valuable to be ignored any longer.

For more information about CCA Texas habitat and advocacy efforts, please visit www.ccatexas.org, listen in on the Coastal Advocacy Adventures Pod Casts or contact John Blaha ([email protected]) or Shane Bonnot ([email protected]) with any questions you might have.