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Farms could help sustain Texas' oyster industry amid climate change

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Texas is one of the last coastal states in the U.S. to allow farm-raised oysters. The state started to develop the program three years ago. Now, farms are in their initial harvest. Houston Public Media's Katie Watkins reports on the sustainability of Texas oysters as they face threats from climate change.

KATIE WATKINS, BYLINE: If you drive about an hour and a half southeast of Houston, to Bolivar Peninsula, and then take a boat, about a mile off the coast, you'll see black objects bobbing on the waves. They look like a flock of birds, but commenters on Facebook had different ideas, according to Hannah Kaplan.

HANNAH KAPLAN: It's an alien landing site...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

KAPLAN: ...Or it's CIA doing secret research. Or it's a trap for your boats or something like that.

WATKINS: Kaplan is the founder of Barrier Beauties, the second permitted oyster farm in the state. The mysterious items are the mesh bags she uses to grow her oysters.

KAPLAN: As the oysters grow, we move them from cage to cage so that they have room to grow and filter water.

WATKINS: The bags are attached to lines that are anchored to the sea floor on her 10-acre plot. Kaplan, who grew up in Houston, was working at a hotel in Aspen, Colo., when the pandemic hit. Her job shut down, so she started looking at this new Texas industry that sounded exciting.

KAPLAN: I'm still learning every day. They are live animals, so we can only do so much to control them.

WATKINS: The water and weather conditions can't be controlled, but Kaplan says there are some things they can do to shape how the oysters grow. Those include splitting...

KAPLAN: We just have to split them into different bags to give them room to breathe and grow.

WATKINS: ...And tumbling...

(SOUND OF OYSTERS TUMBLING)

WATKINS: ...Where the oysters are placed in a rotating tube.

KAPLAN: And it helps chip off the edges so that they grow with a deeper cup rather than longer.

WATKINS: That gives farmed oysters a different look from their wild counterparts.

LAUREN WILLIAMS: Oysters that are maricultured tend to just be prettier, and so they're more desirable for the half-shell market.

WATKINS: That's Lauren Williams with The Nature Conservancy in Texas.

WILLIAMS: I think oyster farming is one tool in the toolbox when it comes to how to create a more sustainable oyster industry in Texas.

WATKINS: She says farmed oysters can provide some of the same natural benefits as wild oysters, such as purifying the water. That matters because wild Texas oysters haven't fared well for years. They've suffered from drought, flood events and hurricanes - conditions that are exacerbated by human-caused climate change.

WILLIAMS: We're seeing larger storms, and with those storms comes sedimentation. It's hard for reefs to recover from that sedimentation.

WATKINS: And without oyster reefs, coastal communities are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, like sea level rise and hurricane storm surge. Farmed oysters won't replace wild oysters, but they could help relieve some of the harvesting pressure. The majority of wild reefs in Texas are already close to harvesting, even though the oyster season is supposed to stay open through April.

JOE FOX: It's basically at the whim of nature and rather unpredictable.

WATKINS: That's Joe Fox. He's the executive director of Palacios Marine Agriculture Research, located on the central Texas coast. Before that, he helped start the state's oyster farming industry.

FOX: What commercial oyster farming can do is level that playing field.

WATKINS: Fox says that made it pretty easy to get people on board. In 2019, state lawmakers passed legislation that gave Texas Parks and Wildlife the authority to develop the program.

FOX: In a very short period of time, we've kind of jump-started an industry.

WATKINS: Now there are four farms in the state, including Kaplan's, and other applications are in the works. That could mean different-tasting oysters because oysters are a bit like fine wine. Their taste reflects where they're grown, meaning each Texas farm has its own unique flavor.

For NPR News, I'm Katie Watkins in Galveston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katie Watkins