- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - Johnny Halili tossed an open oyster shell overboard. Like most of the oysters culled from the floor of Galveston Bay on Tuesday, it was dead.

“Three more years,” he said.

The Galveston County Daily News (http://bit.ly/1WGgZGO ) reports recent heavy rains and flooding along the Brazos River sent freshwater draining into the bay, pushing down the bay’s salinity - the amount of salt in the water. The influx of freshwater is choking some young oysters.

Oysters are resilient animals. But Texas’ oysters have taken a succession of hits in recent years: first it was Hurricane Ike in 2008, which dumped sediment over the bay floor; then prolonged drought, which made the water too salty. Now, heavy rains are the latest assault on oysters.

For oystermen, Mother Nature’s twists and turns have created a costly waiting game.

Halili, who with his wife, Lisa, owns Prestige Oysters in San Leon, tested salinity levels at some of his oyster leases last week after days of rain and flooding. One of his tests found a salinity level of zero parts per thousand, or freshwater.

Oysters thrive with salinity levels around 14 parts per thousand, Halili said.

Tuesday, Halili called for an emergency move of a swath of his oyster beds. Just off the Point of Trinity Bay, about a 40-minute boat ride off the coast of San Leon, a three-person crew pulled hundreds of pounds of oysters onto the deck of a boat. The boat was working just a small portion of the 800 submerged acres the Halilis lease.

The plan was to transport the oysters to another lease held by Prestige on the eastern edge of the bay, where the salinity is closer to 8 parts per thousand, according to recent data from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Halilis are prepping their beds for the next season, which begins Nov. 1 and runs through April 30.

Since the early 1990s, Prestige Oysters has been laying limestone and other rock on the bay floor to grow oysters. It takes between two and three years, sometimes longer, for oysters to mature to at least 3 inches - large enough to eat.

Raz Halili, Johnny’s son, picked through the pile of oyster shells on the deck.

“Most of these are dead,” he said.

Toma Halili said the crew was moving the oysters farther east - about an hour boat ride - in hopes of saving some of the living oysters and getting them to waters where they would have a better chance of surviving.

Frustrated by the situation, Johnny Halili turned his boat toward Hannah’s Reef, cutting through the muddy bay water.

“This looks like Sahara sand,” said Brady Boney, an advocate for sustainable fisheries.

The onslaught of freshwater and sediment has turned Galveston a darker shade of brown, he said.

At the reef, Raz and Johnny Halili dragged cages across the bay floor to collect a sample of oysters.

While the freshwater may kill some oysters, it also helps kill off the bacteria and predators that plague oyster beds. Eventually, the freshwater will move out toward the Gulf of Mexico and high tide will push saltwater back into the bay, bringing the salinity back into balance, Johnny Halili said.

“After these cycles, the conditions are usually pretty good,” he said.

Prestige and other oyster companies are counting on better weather conditions in the next two years to turn things around.

The bay has had its ups and downs, the Halilis said. Now, oystermen are waiting for the comeback.

___

Information from: The Galveston County Daily News, http://www.galvnews.com

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