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."
August 13, 1967
"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.
Howard Dodgen, executive secretary of the Texas Game and Fish Commission, said, "If the dredgers are given the go-ahead, the oyster industry will be destroyed for all time to come." In the summer of 1963 Texas Governor John Connally asked the legislature to combine the nine-man Texas Game and Fish Commission with the five-man Parks Commission. Sportsmen's clubs agreed, with the understanding that fishing-license fees would go to fishing facilities rather than into the parks, of which Texas has pitifully few. The legislature went along with Connally. A new Parks and Wildlife Commission was created. The three members were Will Odom of Austin, a geologist, engineer and independent oil and gas producer; James M. Dellinger of Corpus Christi, a road contractor who has used much oyster shell in construction; and A. W. Moursund, a Johnson City lawyer who serves as trustee for President Johnson's personal business affairs, has a direct telephone line to the White House and claims it is his job to keep the President's affairs secret from the President to avoid conflict of interest. Moursund's name is one of those, along with White House staffers and secret service agents, that appear on a mimeographed passenger list used on presidential helicopters.
Within two months after creation of the new commission, four dredging firms asked for unrestricted dredging rights. At the time it was estimated that the 120 million cubic yards of obtainable shell which remained would last about five years. Dodgen, who had been immediately retired by the new commission, was kept on as consultant but had no office, and his only duty was to pick up his paycheck once a month. Parks and Wildlife hearings on dredging were closed to the public. The Houston Press, dying but still trying, said the Coastal Fisheries Function, a division of Parks and Wildlife, had submitted a report claiming that dredging within 1,500 feet of a live reef would kill oysters—which is what the Game and Fish Commission had said in September of 1962—but the report was never released. "The state government," says Justice Douglas in Farewell to Texas, a Vanishing Wilderness, "is solidly controlled by The Establishment." Any project that can be relegated to state agencies, says Douglas, can be controlled by the Establishment.
"I have repeatedly asked for the conclusions of the study supposedly made by the Parks and Wildlife Commission, but I couldn't get them until a recent Corps of Engineers hearing on the matter," says Eckhardt. "Then I got an old tentative report from Bob Singleton [former regional director of the Coastal Fisheries Function, now executive director of Parks and Wildlife] saying 1,200 feet was the closest a dredge should be allowed to a reef. That is the most arrogant board I ever ran into. Once I asked how much money the state took in from dredging royalties, and it took me a year to get an answer from Will Odom. It seems obvious that with all this secrecy the Parks and Wildlife conclusions are not on a sound basis. I voted for the creation of the new commission [when Eckhardt was a state representative] because I thought a merger of the two agencies would help. I didn't realize there was a bug under the chip."
While dredgers' requests were being considered in private by the Parks and Wildlife Commission, the outcry from oyster fishermen, sportsmen's clubs and conservationists was embarrassing Connally. A governor who takes a stand on a controversial issue in favor of the best interests of the people without considering the politics involved is a rare governor indeed; Connally had little to say about the oyster-dredging matter.
On October 11, 1963 a compromise was announced: the dredgers would be allowed to operate to within 300 feet of a live reef. The sportsmen and conservationists complained that such a rule would turn all oyster reefs into dead ones, and that the compromise was in effect granting the dredgers exactly what they had asked. In February 1964 the commission ruled that if dredgers were damaging reefs they would have to move back another 300 feet.
"The trouble with that is in the policing of it," says Eckhardt. "Such a thing is very difficult to control, and putting dredgers in charge of the safety of live oysters is like putting a possum in charge of the chicken coop. To visualize Galveston Bay, imagine an underwater Grand Canyon with long fingers extended in cuts and ridges. High points come up far from major structures of reefs as towhead reefs, which can be dredged. Cut off the towheads, keep moving in on the major structures, and you are gradually destroying the oysters. The statistical fact that oyster production is up in the bay area is meaningless. Since Hurricane Carla many boats from Louisiana are operating in Galveston Bay. The production per boat is down."
Last January, Moursund's term on the Parks and Wildlife Commission expired, and he was replaced by Harry Jersig, a brewery president from San Antonio who was responsible for the successful program to transplant rainbow trout to Texas waters. Jersig, described by one of his executives as a sportsman, statesman and all-round great fellow, has refused to make a statement about the dredging argument, having had it explained on his behalf that anything he said about the controversy would be so bland as to be not worth the ink it would take to print it. "There are sportsmen and then there are sportsmen," says State Senator A. R. Schwartz, a Democrat from Galveston. "Most of these sportsmen you run into have never spent much time along the Gulf and know little about it. When they talk about sport fishing they mean catching billfish out of $100,000 yachts. They don't realize how many people there are who have little skiffs or $10 rowboats and whose idea of sport fishing is catching trout or redfish in the bays." There are arguments about the effect dredging has on sea trout—the weakfish of the Texas coast—and redfish. Some say fishing is better, and some say it is worse. "I used to fish the bays as much as anybody," says Merle Bonneau, who has worked 32 years as a dredger for Parker Brothers & Co. "On a 15-day vacation I would fish 14 days. I haven't wet a line in the bay in three years now. The water is too oily. The fish are still fun to catch, but you can't eat them. I wouldn't eat a raw oyster that came out of Galveston Bay. Pollution comes down the ship channel from Houston or from the oil rigs or from sewage. But you don't read much about what the oil companies are doing to the bays. The oil-company big shots are the big sportsmen who'd rather blame everything on us."
The Galveston Bay area is, indeed, a cheerless sight. The water has the feel of lightweight motor oil. The Houston ship channel, which comes through Galveston Bay, is a 50-mile-long river of filth. More than half the bay is off limits for oyster fishing because of pollution. "The biggest source of pollution is sewage," says Terrence Leary of the Coastal Fisheries Function. "In the bay area there is a lot of sewage and few sewage-treatment plants. The waste goes through oysters and is toxic if the oysters are eaten raw. Tankers pumping their bilges at night are a problem, too, but spill from oil wells is rare. Sewage is the main thing to worry about."
"The bays are not polluted beyond repair," says Eckhardt. "If we can clean up the pollution, the oysters and fish will revive." The Federal Water Quality Act required the states to establish certain standards by June 30, although it is easy to be skeptical about the enforcement of those standards. Eckhardt blames part of the pollution on silt from dredges and has a photograph taken in orbit by an astronaut showing silt forming in the pass between Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island. "Our dredges were eight or 10 miles from there," says Parker. "That's not our silt. It comes from the rivers and is stirred up by currents."
Industries along the Gulf Coast do as much as dredgers to keep pressure on politicians to allow dredging to continue. Every year plants around Houston produce enough cement to build a concrete highway from that city to Los Angeles. Millions of dollars are invested in allied industries, and thousands of jobs are affected. "They claim they can't get along without shell," says Schwartz, "but they certainly can. What will they do when the shell runs out in a few years?" The answer is they will use limestone, which has roughly the same calcium-carbonate makeup as shell. There are almost unlimited limestone deposits in the Texas Hill Country, 175 miles from the dredges. Some have suggested facetiously that when shell runs out the Texas Hill Country will become the Texas Pit Country. "Maybe the dredgers are doing a bad thing," says one Texas political figure. "But when somebody is trying to put somebody else out of business I look to see who stands to profit. Who owns most of the limestone? Who will ship it? The polluters along the coast benefit by keeping the heat on the dredgers and off themselves, knowing the dredgers will continue to operate. Now watch and see who leaps in when the shell is gone."
It is possible the dredgers will not continue to operate. In the federal bill that regulates estuaries Galveston Bay is defined as an estuary. Eckhardt has found a requirement that Corps of Engineers permits must be issued for dredging in navigable waters. The Parker Brothers had a permit that expired and have requested another. Other dredgers have no permits. The entire matter could eventually be decided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior.
If members of the Fish and Wildlife Service should ever be so pedestrian as to consult the Encyclopedia Britannica, they would read: "The simplest form of oyster culture is the preservation of natural oyster beds. Upon this, in fact, depends the whole future of the industry, since it is not probable that any system of artificial breeding can be devised which will render it possible to keep up a supply without at least occasional recourse to seed oysters produced under natural conditions. It is the opinion of almost all who have studied the subject that any natural bed may in time be destroyed by overfishing, by burying the breeding oysters, by covering up the projections suitable for the reception of spat and by breaking down, through the action of heavy dredges, the ridges which were especially fitted to be the seats of colonies."
"There is little time left," says State Representative Ed J. Harris from Galveston. "The shell in Galveston Bay, including the live reefs, will be gone in less than a decade. If the next legislature approves this selfish destruction, as this one did, it will be too late."