Curtis Miller, president and owner of Miller Seafood Company, dumps empty oyster shells. Fueled by Texas’ ongoing drought, the algae bloom — known as Karenia brevis — thrives in warm, salty water and has spread through the bays and islands along Texas’ 350-mile coast. Eric L. Kayne, for USA TODAYBy Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
13 December 2011

PORT LAVACA, Texas – In better days, the loading dock in this East Texas harbor city would be a bustle of activity: fishermen unloading sacks filled with fresh oysters, dealers paying by the sack for the bivalves, 18-wheelers hauling them to Florida, Virginia and other destinations.

On an afternoon last month, the dock was quiet. A handful of fishermen lingered by their boats, swapping rumors and lamenting the fate of their industry.

"We've never seen anything like this before," oysterman David DeLeon says. "It's never been this bad."

A monstrous bloom of toxic algae looming across the Texas coast has shut down oyster season. Fueled by Texas' ongoing drought, the algae — known as Karenia brevis — thrives in warm, salty water and has spread through the bays and islands along Texas' 350-mile coast, says Meridith Byrd, a marine biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The algae could cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in humans and is harmful to fish but not fatal to people, she says.

State health officials took the rare step of closing the entire coast for oyster harvesting — all 17,586 acres of oyster beds — before the season opened Nov. 1. The state has shut down the entire coast before, most recently in 2000, according to state health officials. But the size of the current bloom coupled with the state's ongoing drought and lack of rain could make it one of the biggest and most destructive in history, Byrd says. The bloom so far has killed 4.5 million fish, she says.

"We're going to need a significant weather change," Byrd says. "So far, it's just not happening."

The $30 million Texas oyster industry, having already endured destruction from Hurricane Ike in 2008, fallout from last year's BP oil spill and the ongoing statewide drought, today faces one of its toughest challenges, says Sammy Ray, a shellfish toxicologist for Texas A&M University-Galveston who has studied oysters for more than 60 years.

Oysters live in a delicate balance of saltwater and freshwater. Too much freshwater kills off oysters by the bushel, while water with too much salt spawns diseases such as the current red tide, he says.

The "red tide" algae usually live deep offshore and are kept away from inland waters by freshwater river runoff and rainstorms, Ray says. With lack of freshwater because of the drought, the red tide has crept dangerously close to shore. […]

Disasters doom Texas oyster crop



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