Bay botch

As the harsh smell of raw crude oil becomes overpowering, Joe Nelson peers over the bow of his aluminum skiff. "There it is," he says, pointing to a 20-foot-wide ribbon of black that winds across the murky waters of Galveston Bay. The oysterman follows the trail of oil for about four miles until he finds the source, a frothy circle bubbling from the depths. A closer look reveals four other, smaller founts, apparently coming from breaks in an underwater pipeline. Nearby, shrimp boats trawl for the day's catch.

Nelson marks the area with a long bamboo pole, radios the authorities, and heads toward his oyster operation at Smith Point in East Bay. The oil fumes have made his throat raw, a condition he exacerbates with a cigarette. Sweeping a weather-beaten hand from left to right, he laments that the fish used to leap out of the water by the dozen from one end of Galveston Bay to the other. "We had pompano all over this bay," Nelson says, listing several species that have declined significantly over the years: red stingaree, alligator gar, eels, hickory shad, batwing skates.

"You're seeing less marine life in the bay than you saw 10 or 15 years ago," he says. "There's just so many species that's going, and nobody's paying attention to it."

Nelson is most concerned about a species that's still around: oysters. Business hasn't been great the past few years, and it's not just because prices haven't kept pace with costs. An average oyster should mature into a size suitable for market in about 14 to 18 months, but they seem to be taking a lot longer these days. By his estimation, 75 percent of the oysters in the bay are under the minimum size. "There's plenty of small oysters," he says, "but they aren't growing."

Though he can't prove why the crop is failing to thrive, Nelson has his guesses. Their food supply is shrinking, he believes, in part because of pollution in the bay's highly sensitive waters. He also thinks that the filter feeders are stunted by an accumulation of toxics in their tissues. "There's got to be a correlation," he says.

But Nelson is no scientist, and although his anecdotal evidence of declining populations in the bay resonates among his fellow commercial fishermen, it doesn't hold much water in the scientific community. Not that there's much evidence to the contrary: What little scientific literature exists on the subject of pollution in Galveston Bay invariably notes how much literature there isn't. "There's no systematic testing of the bay," says Marvin Legator. The toxicologist at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has studied the bay and agrees with Nelson's general assessment.

There may be little hard data to support Nelson's conclusions, but no one disputes that pollutants get dumped into the bay -- in huge quantities. A 1993 study by the Galveston Bay Estuary Program concluded that more than four trillion gallons of wastewater flow into the bay every year, containing about 45 million pounds of oil and grease; 8.4 million pounds of lead, mercury, and other heavy metals; and unknown tons of other toxic substances, including carcinogens. Sources include permitted discharges from industrial and sewage-treatment plants, storm-water runoff, oil and chemical spills, and tainted water from the various tributaries that feed the bay.

The many state and federal agencies charged with monitoring and controlling pollution in the bay don't really know the effects of these discharges on marine life. Poor coordination and a lack of funding for studies and personnel hamstring the agencies. But they agree on one general fact: Galveston Bay has improved dramatically since the dark days 30 years ago when the Houston Ship Channel was declared one of the most polluted waterways in the country. "Let me tell you, it's a hell of a lot better than it was," says Elna Christopher, a spokeswoman for the General Land Office, which manages certain types of oil spills.

That's true by some measures. Tighter federal clean-water mandates -- and, in some cases, court orders -- have forced municipalities to clean up their sewage systems. Spill response has improved, reducing damage from accidents. And the Galveston Bay Estuary Program helped craft a long-range plan to deal with some of the bay's thorniest issues, such as how to control polluted runoff from urban areas.

But by other measures, the agencies may be dead wrong. Several studies of the bay seem to indicate that the bottom of the food chain, which sustains oysters and shrimp, is on the decline; the same goes for fish populations. Surveys show increasing destruction of vital coastal wildlife habitat. Another study found potential elevated cancer risks for people who eat large quantities of Galveston Bay seafood.

This disturbs Richard Moore, a commercial shrimper and president of PISCES, an association of bay shrimpers. The catch in 1999 has been poor, growth has slowed, and a number of shrimp are infected with a disease that blackens their gills (though it apparently has no ill effect on humans). "When you look at the data," Moore says, "the numbers have come down dramatically, and the problems are increasing."

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Bob Burtman