There Are No Texas Oysters in Your Near Future

Houston-based food journalist Robb Walsh wrote yesterday about the red tide outbreak, which has caused the delayed opening of Texas' oyster beds. Oyster harvesting was closed until further notice by the Texas Department of Health State Services (DSHS) on October 26, leaving Walsh and the rest of us hungry people wondering whether Texas oysters will be ready for a Thanksgiving feast.

I spoke yesterday with Christine Mann, spokeswoman for DSHS, to try and determine just how long we might be without Texas Oysters. "Rain can help break up the algae bloom," she said, but that was where the hope dried up.

It's going to take a lot of rain, in other words. The National Shellfish Sanitation Program set a 5 cells per milliliter threshold for the toxic algae. When greater than 5 cells are detected, harvesting in surrounding areas is prohibited. Currently levels north of 1000 cells per milliliter are being detected in the waters along the shore of Texas.

DSHS is still seeing increasing levels of the algae. According to Mann we're still in the pre-bloom phase, which means the algae has yet to release its toxins. When the algae does bloom those toxins sink to the ocean floor, where they collect in the tissues of oysters and other shellfish.

For now we're in a holding pattern and hoping for rain. DSHS will continue to monitor coastal waters and wait for algae levels to drop below the 5 milliter threshold. But that doesn't mean the coast is clear (again, sorry). After levels drop, individual oyster beds will be tested and and opened only after tissue levels of the toxin fall to safe levels.

That could take some time.

"In 2000 we enclosed the entire coastline," said Mann. "It took 2-3 months for the oysters to detoxify."

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