A widespread toxic algae outbreak has shut down oyster season across the Texas coast and caused health problems for many nearby residents.
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.
In Florida, algae blooms have caused health problems for residents and, in towns that rely on water to fuel their business, have hurt the bottom line.
The Texas bloom appears different from those in Florida and is likely caused by red tide that, due to the drought, is creeping ever-closer to oyster beds near the shore. A parasite known as “dermo,” which has fast been spreading through Texas coastal waters, is also becoming a major threat to the industry.
And it isn’t just the shellfish industry that’s hurting. One hardware store owner told USA Today that the closures are costing his business at least $4,000 a month. Restaurants, fueling stations and fishing equipment suppliers have also been negatively impacted.
The Texas bloom is only the latest in a string of events negatively affecting the state’s $30 million oyster industry. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast area, and remains the costliest natural disaster the country has ever seen. Last year’s gulf oil spill only made matters worse — especially for the fishing industry, which is still grappling with consumer’s concerns over the safety of Gulf of Mexico seafood.