Collaborative Partnerships to Support Oyster Conservation and Recovery in Texas

Oysters are a highly valued and productive resource facing dual pressures of environmental change and human activities. Once dominant habitats in estuaries worldwide, oyster reefs have experienced greater losses than any other marine habitat. In Texas, the current situation is dire. The oyster population in Texas has been severely impacted by recent storms (e.g., Hurricanes Ike and Harvey) and destructive harvest activities. Texas resource managers have been working to adopt new management strategies, but management success can be limited by conflicting interests among key stakeholder groups and a lack of critical data on the response of oysters to conservation actions.

One such action is the temporary and permanent closure of bay areas to commercial oyster harvest—a conservation tool regulated by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and authorized by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. Currently, 21 of the state’s 27 harvest areas are closed to allow overharvested reefs time and space to recover. Fierce debate over the closures is being followed closely by state and national media as stakeholders from all sides of the issue express concerns.

Development of a new master plan by TPWD for management and sustainability of the Texas oyster fishery is expected to take several years. During this critical moment in time for Texas oyster reefs, the solution for improving management outcomes and ensuring oyster resource longevity lies in building consensus among diverse stakeholder groups and identifying and implementing strategies that preserve reef habitats and associated ecological and economic benefits.

The Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has a long history of serving as an honest broker, working collaboratively to provide the science needed to expand the scope of resource management and policy decisions. This project will be led by Executive Director and Endowed Chair for Socio-Economics, Dr. David Yoskowitz. He has led many efforts to integrate stakeholder needs and wants into management strategies ranging from habitat conservation and restoration to freshwater inflow, and fisheries. HRI Chair Dr. Jennifer Beseres Pollack will co-lead the stakeholder workshops. She and the Institute’s Coastal Conservation and Restoration Lab have successfully restored over 30 acres of oyster reef in Texas bays and demonstrated the benefits of restored reefs for replacing lost habitat and supporting key ecological and economic benefits.

Because environmental issues impact multiple parties with diverse interests, forming collaborative partnerships in pursuit of a common goal can facilitate better outcomes by decreasing conflict, encouraging learning, and creating consensus. Working in close partnership with TPWD and Texas General Land Office, HRI will convene stakeholder representatives from diverse parties (e.g. industry, resource management, conservation organizations, scientists, community outreach and development groups) in three facilitated workshops to define ongoing threats to oyster reefs and develop forward-thinking strategies through a collaborative process for oyster reef conservation and recovery.