Spotted here and there on Galveston Bay, where the pirate Jean Lafitte used to sail, are half a dozen clumsy bargelike vessels that have in the past few years stirred Texans into a family squabble resounding with predictions of doom from one side and nervous denials from the other. The vessels are dredges that suck oyster shell from great reefs. The shell is used for paving materials, concrete, chicken and cattle feed, for the manufacture of plate glass, aluminum, textiles and dry ice, for fertilizer, soap, magnesium and many other items—including the Houston Astrodome, which required 500,000 cubic yards of shell in the construction of its stadium and parking lot. A number of industries in the Houston- Galveston area depend, or claim to depend, on the production of oyster shell, which is, to the Texas dredgers, a $25,000,000 per year business.
Conservationists maintain the dredgers are destroying the natural reefs in the complex of Galveston, Trinity, East and West Bay, killing live oysters, disrupting the cycles of marine life, menacing the rare birds on Vintun Island, silting the bottoms, polluting the water and setting up bayside towns for devastation by the next major hurricane. As hurricanes tend to occur during intense sun-spot activity, and as such a condition is predicted late this year, there is talk of cataclysm. "Without these natural breakwaters in the bay, I shudder to think what the wind and waves would do," says Keith Ozmore, former outdoor editor of the late
Houston Press, former executive secretary of the Save Our Shell movement and current administrative assistant to Bob Eckhardt, a Democratic Congressman from Houston.
"Nonsense," replies Bob Parker Jr., vice-president of one of the major dredging firms based in Houston. "That is just theory. Nobody knows what will happen." The dredgers say that the fish and oyster yield in Texas bays has risen, that dredging helps clear pollution by increasing the circulation of currents, and that much of the disputed water is already poisoned and of little value, anyway.
In a way the argument is the same one that is going on across the country—the conservationists vs. what Justice William O. Douglas calls "the Ahabs."
"It's impossible to run a society without depleting natural resources," says Parker. "This is a problem, no doubt of that. But this shell is needed by the people and the industry of the Gulf Coast, and we're doing a great deal toward replacing it with artificial reefs that grow more oysters. The conservationists ought to do more work and less nowling."
Is the shell really needed? Most of the country does without it. Huge beds like those of Pocomoke Sound have been destroyed by overdredging, and Maryland has gotten by somehow. Will the artificial reefs be successful over a period of time? What will truly be the effect on marine and human life if the reefs are removed? The answers are conjectural, but it is not hard to explain how Texas got itself into this argument in the first place.
According to geological supposition, the Galveston Bay area was formed during the last ice age by silt flowing down the deep troughs of the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers. As water levels rose from melting ice the rivers no longer flowed as rapidly, and the 50-fathom curve moved as far as 100 miles from shore. Silt, tides and hurricanes produced the bays of brackish waters preferred by oysters.
Oysters are extremely vulnerable creatures. A female oyster releases about half a million eggs during spawning season from March to November in the warm Gulf Coast water, and about one in 4,000,000 reaches maturity. Eggs and sperm meet somewhat by chance. A fertilized egg produces a larva in from two to five hours. The larvae swim about near the surface, often moving as much as five miles, thus changing what is a dead reef one year into a live one the next. With the eggs and sperm, the larvae are part of the sea's basic food supply, plankton. Not one oyster in a million lives to reach market. But so many oysters have been laid down during the ages that the great reefs along the Texas Gulf Coast have supplied dredgers since 1880, when the shell was loaded onto wheelbarrows by shovels.
As industries began to thrive from the use of dead shell, the dredgers naturally began to take more of it. In Texas the dredgers were taking more than 12 million cubic yards of shell per year, paying the state a royalty of 15� per cubic yard, which is much less than comparable oil and gas royalties and far less than the
90�-per-cubic-yard royalty charged by Maryland.
The old Texas Game and Fish Commission had two important regulations for dredgers: 1) no dredge could operate within 1,500 feet of a "live" reef (one containing five or more barrels of live oysters per 2,500 square feet), and 2) no dredge could operate unless there was at least a two-foot overburden of silt on the reef, which would mean that the reef was dead. In 1961, on behalf of the Texas dredgers, W. D. Haden of Houston applied for permission to dredge all the shell from several major reefs in the Galveston Bay area within seven years, arguing that shell was a valuable resource and that the bays were so polluted the oysters were inedible. A tremendous political fight ensued.