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Oyster, Eastern (Crassostrea virginica)
Also known as: American cupped oyster, American oyster, Common oyster, Gulf oyster, Southern oyster
Source: Harvested from wild and cultivated reefs in Gulf state waters from West Florida to Texas

Native to the western Atlantic Ocean, Eastern oysters are found along the East Coast from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada to the northern Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf. They’ve also been transplanted to be cultured along the West Coast and abroad.

Oyster larvae are found in the water column. As they grow, they settle to the bottom and attach to hard surfaces, primarily in areas of open bottom but also in areas with submerged vegetation. Oysters can grow in a variety of environments but prefer brackish water where salt and freshwater mix. Oysters are mostly sessile—they stay in one place and grow together in reefs (natural accumulations of oyster shell and living oysters). Oyster reefs are found in intertidal environments (between the high and low tide) and shallow sub-tidal areas (always below the water surface).


Oysters grow fast and reproduce quickly and abundantly. They spawn throughout the Gulf in all but the coldest months; spawning peaks in the spring, fall, or both depending on environmental conditions. Oysters first mature and spawn as males and later develop female reproductive capabilities. To spawn, females release eggs and males release sperm simultaneously. Depending on their size, each female can produce between 10 million and 100 million eggs during a spawning season. The sperm fertilizes the eggs, and larvae disperse into the water column, distributed by tides and currents. After about two to three weeks, larvae settle to the bottom, attach to a hard surface, and develop into spat (young oysters). Once settled, spat grow rapidly, especially in ideal environmental conditions. Eastern oysters can live up to 25 to 30 years and grow to nearly one foot in shell length.

Oysters filter feed, straining food particles out of the water. Larvae feed on phytoplankton (tiny plants), and juvenile and adult oysters feed on plankton (tiny plants and animals) and detritus (waste or debris). Oysters are food for a variety of predators including finfish and invertebrates, ranging from protozoans and jellyfish to mollusks and crustaceans. Black drum, oyster drills, and blue and stone crabs prey heavily on oysters.


Eastern oysters are bivalve (two-shelled) mollusks; the soft body of the oyster lives inside the hard, hinged outer shells that come together at a joint. Eastern oyster shells are rough with ridges and bumps, oval in shape, and off-white to brownish in color, sometimes with purple markings. The shells have a cupped shape, and the left valve (shell) is almost always thicker, heavier, and more deeply cupped than the right.


While harvesting oysters dates back thousands of years, the modern Gulf oyster industry was established during colonial times. By the 19th century, the industry had expanded beyond the Gulf Coast to new markets throughout the Midwest and East Coast as oyster canning technology and railroads developed. Always a major producer of Eastern oysters, the Gulf has dominated U.S. Eastern oyster production since the early 1980s, as production in the Northeast declined. Today, total Gulf production of Eastern oysters has remained fairly stable, despite destructive natural and manmade events, and accounts for 75 to 90% of the total domestic production of Eastern oysters. In 2013, harvesters brought in about 19 million pounds of oysters (shucked weight) from the Gulf, primarily in Louisiana (59%) and Texas (32%), with revenues of about $77 million.

Not only do oysters have great economic value, they also provide valuable ecosystem services to the Gulf. Oysters feed by filtering food such as algae and organic matter from the water, improving water quality in the process. Oyster reefs provide shelter and food for a number of organisms and serve as breakwaters to protect adjacent shorelines from erosion.

Because of the Eastern oyster’s importance to the economy and ecosystem, the Gulf States have carefully managed this resource for well over 100 years, adopting their first oyster regulations in the late 19th century. Today, the Gulf States are still responsible for monitoring and managing the Eastern oyster resource in the Gulf. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission helps coordinate the states, gathering scientific data and organizing management measures to ensure they are consistent throughout the species’ range. Specific management measures vary among the states, but their general approach is to maintain healthy oyster stocks, habitat, and the ecosystem services provided by oyster reefs and ensure the sustainability of the fishery.

Methods Seasons Landings
Commercial Recreational

The Gulf has led the United States in production of Eastern oysters since the early 1980s. Today, total Gulf production of Eastern oysters has remained fairly stable, despite destructive natural and manmade events, and accounts for 75 to 90% of the total domestic production of Eastern oysters. In 2013, harvesters brought in 19 million pounds (shucked weight) from the Gulf, primarily in Louisiana (59%) and Texas (32%), with revenues of about $77 million.

Source: NOAA Fisheries Annual Commercial Landings Statistics


Landings Summary Data :  
1992
 To 
2016



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2002$50,755,58024,110,188
2003$61,633,56127,032,548
2004$60,845,19025,051,863
2005$56,509,74820,174,364
2006$62,315,90719,673,937
2007$69,542,23322,518,049
2008$60,464,04620,722,522
2009$73,464,36222,828,592
2010$55,084,74015,824,477
2011$65,273,04818,742,276


Overview Current Abundance Additional Reasearch
Overview

As part of their management programs, states routinely monitor oyster resources by mapping oyster reefs to determine reef location and size and sampling them to take a census of the reefs’ oyster populations. They also monitor other biological parameters such as reproduction, growth, and survival as well as environmental factors such as salinity and temperature.

The states monitor oyster harvests through trip ticket programs. Dealers purchasing oysters directly from commercial fishermen must submit information about their catch, where and how it was harvested, and how much was harvested. Commercial fishermen who sell their catch directly to consumers are also required to complete and submit trip tickets with this information. State agents also monitor oyster fishing trips throughout the season to help estimate harvest and fishing effort.


Current Abundance

Assessing oyster stocks in the Gulf is challenging due to the nature of oysters as well as availability of assessment data across states. Abundance varies by state, estuary, and even reef and is impacted by a number of factors beyond fishing (including natural and manmade environmental conditions). Each Gulf state routinely conducts population assessments, but their sampling methods and coverage vary, producing inconsistent data across the Gulf.

The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission has recommended that the states standardize their sampling methods, develop a method to accurately assess oyster populations and reef habitat, and share this data across the Gulf. The Commission is also testing an assessment model that could be useful for the Gulf States in estimating fishing rates and abundance and determining reference points for appropriate fishing and population levels.

The Gulf States run a number of programs to increase oyster populations including restoring reefs and enhancing natural oyster stocks with hatchery-raised baby oysters.


Additional Research

Much of the current research on Gulf oysters centers on impacts from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Additional work includes advancing post-harvest processing techniques to reduce or eliminate Vibrio bacteria from raw oysters.


Who's Responsible Management Program
Who's Responsible

Individual Gulf state fisheries management agencies are responsible for monitoring and managing the oyster resource in the Gulf. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission helps coordinate monitoring and management among the states, gathering scientific data and organizing management measures to ensure they’re consistent throughout the species’ range.

State and federal health agencies also play a vital role in oyster fishery management. Oysters are filter feeders and can accumulate contaminants and microorganisms present in the water. People, especially if they’re immune-compromised, can contract these commonly occurring bacteria, parasites, and viruses from eating contaminated raw or under-processed shellfish. As a result, the management of oyster fisheries is also concerned with ensuring shellfish are safe to eat.


Management Program

The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission’s 2012 Regional Management Plan for the Oyster Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico summarizes each Gulf states’ oyster management program, describes issues, and proposes recommendations for future management measures to meet management goals and objectives. The general goal of the regional plan is to maintain healthy oyster stocks, habitat, and the ecosystem services provided by oyster reefs, and ensure the sustainability of the fishery. Specific measures vary among the states but generally include size limits, gear restrictions, seasonal and area closures, and licensing and permitting requirements. They also provide for the management of public oyster grounds and private oyster leases, maintenance and restoration of oyster reefs, and development of oyster aquaculture.

Each state manages the oyster resource not only to support the fishery, but also to ensure oysters are safe for human consumption, strictly regulating harvesting, handling, processing, and shipping in accordance with state and federal health codes and standards. The states monitor oyster harvesting areas to ensure they meet water quality requirements (and close them if they do not), require harvested oysters to be tagged with information identifying when, where, and how they were harvested, and ensure processing facilities meet all applicable guidelines for the safe handling and processing of oysters.

State law enforcement agents ensure compliance with all fisheries management and public health regulations through regular patrols and investigations.