Galveston Bay earns C in fifth report card: Oysters and dolphins bounce back after Hurricane Harvey

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Pollution in the Bay
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Phosphorus in river and bayous
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Saltwater wetlands
After Hurricane Harvey dumped billions of gallons of water over the Greater Houston area, Galveston Bay suffered. Oysters died off, dolphins developed skin lesions, and fish populations were scattered, officials said.

However, officials said things have largely returned back to normal for the bay and the variety of creatures that call it home. In fact, Harvey acted as a “reset button” for oyster populations, and they have been spawning frequently since, said Raz Halili, the vice president of oyster distributor Prestige Oysters.

“Oysters are resilient creatures. It was less mortality than we originally anticipated,” he said.

For the fifth straight year since its inception, the Galveston Bay report card, released in August, shows Texas’ largest estuary has earned an overall C grade, evidence of its resiliency to the effects of the historic storm. Still, scientists and environmentalists said some aspects of the bay are in danger of degrading further.

The Galveston Bay Foundation and the Houston Advanced Research Center partnered to develop the report card, which includes grades in several indicators across six categories, to give the public an understandable idea of the bay’s health and prompt residents to act to improve its quality, foundation and HARC officials said.

Galveston Bay’s watershed covers thousands of square miles and reaches all the way to Dallas, but those in the Bay Area feel the effects of the bay’s health the most. Boaters, fishers and seafood restaurant owners are some whose livelihoods depend on a high-quality bay, officials said.

“For many residents, the reason they live there is the proximity to the water,” HARC scientist Erin Kinney said. “It’s still integral to the community.”

HARVEY EFFECTS


The 2019 report card is the first featuring a full year of post-Hurricane Harvey data. Scientists were pleasantly surprised to find in their research that Galveston Bay is a resilient ecosystem that was able to quickly bounce back from the hurricane’s damage. This is due to the bay’s size and the huge variety of systems and wildlife that work in tandem to recover from catastrophic events, Kinney said.

Harvey released so much rain that for weeks Galveston Bay turned from a saltwater body to a freshwater body all the way up to Galveston Island. As a result, many fish in streams and rivers entered the bay, and many fish that lived in the bay temporarily swam into the Gulf of Mexico, Kinney said.

Oysters did not have that luxury. Stuck in place, they became stressed and diseased in the bay, HARC President Lisa Gonzalez said.

“Oysters are a keystone species for a habitat that provides a home for many, many other species in Galveston Bay,” Kinney said.

Halili said the bay was closed to oyster harvesting for months after Harvey. Local seafood restaurants had to get oysters from Louisiana instead of the bay at a slightly increased cost until oyster populations recovered, he said.

Harvey also affected fishing, said Doug Pike, the host of SportsTalk790’s outdoors show “The Doug Pike Show.”

“Nothing was where it should have been that time of year, including the fish,” Pike wrote in an email to Community Impact Newspaper. “Fortunately for the resource, most fishermen were preoccupied with recovery throughout the time. In a way, the fish caught a break.”

Dolphins are another species that suffered when the bay turned into a freshwater body. Many of the 600-plus dolphins that live in the bay suffered skin lesions that made them more susceptible to disease, said Kristi Fazioli, a research associate with the Galveston Bay Dolphin Research and Conservation Program.

“Dolphins are meant for saltwater. When exposed to freshwater, it can have detrimental effects on their health,” she said.

Dolphins are an indicator species, which means when researchers see issues with dolphins, it is a sign of an overall problem with the bay. Dolphins have since recovered and returned to the bay, a sign that the bay has quickly recovered from Harvey, Fazioli said.

“Despite the impacts of Hurricane Harvey, we still managed to bounce back,” Galveston Bay Foundation President Bob Stokes said. “The bay really is resilient.”

DEVELOPMENT AND POLLUTION


The 2019 report card saw grade dips for the water quality category and its indicators for phosphorus. The estimated grade for saltwater wetlands also decreased, and these problems can be tied to the urbanization of previously undeveloped areas, officials said.

League City is one of several Bay Area communities that are growing and changing. The thousands of acres of open fields in League City’s southwest quadrant are under development and will one day be almost entirely residential and commercial property, League City officials said.

Such development can adversely affect waterways. Erosion-controlling silt fences developers put up when constructing buildings often fall down, allowing damaging sediments to flow into waterways, Kinney said.

The more an area is developed from farm or natural land to residential or commercial, the more rain runs off into nearby streams and rivers. More roofs and concrete mean more chemicals, bacteria and other pollutants end up in the bay, said Gene Fisseler, Clear Lake resident and longtime environmentalist and bay advocate.

Additionally, as lawns are created, new residents use phosphorus, a chemical necessary for plant growth, to fertilize lawns, and the chemical washes into bayous and ends up polluting the bay. Developers might know when and how much phosphorus to use, but residents who do not could end up polluting water, Kinney said.

“Even if there is an equal amount of fertilizer, more of it is probably washing off,” Fisseler said. “We homeowners are guilty of that.”

It is estimated the grade for saltwater wetlands will drop from a C to a D once officials receive concrete data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it is known the acreage for wetlands, even protected ones, has decreased since 2015, in part due to development, officials said.

“Development per se is not bad, but when you … fragment a lot of habitat, you lose the value of that habitat,” Stokes said.

Wetlands are important because they filter stormwater runoff, protect against storm surges, are nurseries for several fish species and provide other benefits, Kinney said.

Major pollution events also have an adverse effect on the bay.

In March, a tank of chemicals at Intercontinental Terminals Co. caught fire and took several days to extinguish. The extinguishing foam firefighters used released harmful chemicals into the Houston Ship Channel, experts said.

In May, two barges collided in the Houston Ship Channel near Bayport, spilling 378,000 gallons of gasoline in Galveston Bay, officials said.

Since both events happened this year, they were not included in the 2019 report card and will appear in the 2020 report card. For the 2019 report card, Galveston Bay earned a B for the pollution category, a B for the total number of oil spills and an A for the total volume of oil spilled.

Increasing phosphorus levels and oil spills and other industry-level pollution are issues of the region’s growing population. Only a small percentage of residents and companies are not “following the rules,” but as more people move to the area, more pollution could come, Kinney said.

“What we’ve seen in the last five years is how much more pressure we’re putting on ecosystems like Galveston Bay … because we have so many people now,” she said.

AIMING FOR IMPROVEMENT


Despite the devastation of Harvey and dips in certain indicators, Galveston Bay has made progress in several areas since 2015. Recreation is safer, underwater grasses are healthier and nitrogen levels in the bay are excellent. Additionally, the bay is much healthier and features more wildlife than it did 30 or 40 years ago, Stokes said.

Harvey proved the bay is resilient, and that is because it has a strong variety of systems working together for the entire estuary’s benefit, Kinney said.

“If one area gets hit, especially hard, the other areas can pick up the slack,” she said.

The bay’s grades have not fluctuated much because it takes years to see the effects of positive and negative influences on a system as large and complex as Galveston Bay, Gonzalez said.

“We’ve said from the beginning this is like steering a giant ocean liner; it takes a long time to change direction,” Stokes said.

Still, officials are hopeful that, with the public’s help, the grade can climb. Residents can help by participating in trash cleanups, using the Galveston Bay Action Network app to report pollution, properly disposing of pet waste and limiting the use of lawn fertilizers, among other things, Kinney said.

“We need to make it a priority as a society,” Stokes said.
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