Red Tide Prompts Local Oyster Processers To Cut Back

Dead Atlantic bumper at beach access 6, South Padre Island, October 17, 2011 (TPWD photo)
The drought-induced red tide algae bloom that's shut down oyster harvests along the Gulf Coast is the latest in a long-line of natural and man-made events that have devastated the industry.

Clifford Hillman and his family have been in the oyster business for several decades in Dickinson and have seen a lot, but nothing like this.

"I have never seen the whole of the Texas coast shut down at one time from it. It does rear its head sporadically in different bay systems, but to have the whole state shut down at one time is rather unprecedented." 

Oyster season was supposed to start on Tuesday, but it won't now until the Red Tide clears up and the oysters have a chance to cleanse themselves.

"Even after an oyster cleanses itself, even after the water is clean, you're 2-3 weeks away from being able to harvest that oyster. That's how stringent the regulations and testing processes are with the health department. So if the red tide were gone today for instance in Galveston Bay, which it's not, you would still be 2-3 weeks away from having an oyster harvest."   

That delay, combined with the big storms in the Gulf over the past few years and the BP oil spill last year, has taken a big bite out of Hillman's business.

"I'm in my Port Lavaca location right now. I drove in from my Dickinson office to lay five more people off here at this location. We currently have a total sum employee count of 11 people and normally the first week of November we employ about 260 people."

Hillman and other oyster processers and fisherman say they fully support the Texas Department of Health's oyster ban. Hillman is taking a pragmatic approach to the latest trouble.

"When you go on a diet to lose weight, you tighten your belt to keep from losing your britches and that's the mode of operation we're in right now."

There are about 350 oyster boats in Texas that employ more than 1000 fisherman and deck hands, plus dozens of oyster processing businesses.  

For more information, visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Red Tide Updates.