Sierra Club Urges TPWD to Protect Oysters and Coastal Communities

An underwater oyster reef with a small striped fish swimming behind it.

A Gulf oyster reef. Photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

The Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter submitted comments today urging the state to approve the permanent closure of three bays near Rockport to oyster harvesting. An estimated 50-85% of Gulf oysters have already disappeared due to overfishing and climate change impacts, and sampling shows that the oyster populations in the Mesquite Bay Complex are also suffering. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is expected to make a final decision tomorrow, Nov. 3, at its commission meeting. (Update: TPWD voted to protect oysters in the Mesquite Bay Complex!)

“Closing these bays to harvest is essential if we want to prevent yet another Gulf region from losing its oyster populations,” said Alex Ortiz, water resources specialist for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter. “Oysters perform functions that are crucial for the environment and our shoreline, parts of the state that are home to millions of Texans and many communities of color. The harvesting in the Mesquite Bay Complex is presently unsustainable, and we have to act now to preserve some of our most integral allies in building a resilient Texas coast.”

Oysters help coastal communities by:

  • Protecting against sea level rise and flooding. The Texas coast is eroding at an estimated average of 4 feet per year, with more than half of the coastline eroding at 6 feet per year and some locations losing more than 30 feet per year. Oyster reefs act as natural jetties, reducing waves and creating calmer waters.
  • Protecting freshwater wetlands. Oysters prevent saltwater from entering wetlands, which serve as homes for wildlife and crucial storm buffers for coastal communities. 
  • Filtering water. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons per day, supporting the marine life that makes the Gulf of Mexico so special and that supports vibrant tourism and fishing economies.
  • Providing habitat. Oyster reefs provide important forage habitat for shorebirds as well as juvenile habitat for saline-sensitive fish populations.

Last spring, TPWD commissioners considered the proposed Mesquite Bay System closure but delayed their final decision due to significant concern from oyster fishing stakeholders.

TPWD staff are recommending that the department proceed with a permanent closure, supported by conservation organizations. The Sierra Club also strongly supports closing the bays now while at the same time it urges TPWD to reduce the impact on fishers by:

  • Securing additional appropriations to facilitate the buyback of harvesting licenses.
  • Providing support services for oyster fishers to transition to alternate jobs, especially in coastal industries like tourism or fishing, as well as training and hiring oyster fishers to help with coastal habitat restoration. 
  • Incentives to license holders to engage in habitat restoration.

“We understand the concerns from the oyster fishing community – this would not be a small loss for them,” Ortiz said. “That’s why we hope to see continued innovative approaches from TPWD and license-holders so we can work together to preserve these reefs. Losing what remains of Texas oyster reefs would be such a significant casualty for the entire region. If everything disappears, fishers will have nothing to harvest and it will be much more difficult to restore and revive the oyster populations. The future of commercial oyster harvest is inextricably linked to the continued existence of these reefs. In that way, we all want the same thing.”