INTERVIEWEE: Bill Balboa
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: December 20, 2021
LOCATION: Brazoria, Texas, remotely recorded
TRANSCRIBER: Trint, David Todd
SOURCE MEDIA: MP3 audio file
David Todd [00:00:02] My name is David Todd, and I have the good fortune to be with Bill Balboa here. We will be doing an interview and with his permission, we plan on recording this interview for research and educational work on behalf of the Conservation History Association of Texas. And for a book and a website for Texas A&M University Press and for an archive at the Briscoe Center for American History, which is at the University of Texas at Austin. And Mr. Balboa would have all rights to use the recording as he sees fit to. And I just wanted to make sure before we went any further that that was a good arrangement for him, and that’s what he expected.
Bill Balboa [00:00:50] Absolutely.
David Todd [00:00:52] Great. OK, well, let’s get started then.
David Todd [00:00:56] It is Monday, December 20th, 2021. It’s just a little before two o’clock Central Time. My name is David Todd. I am representing the Conservation History Association of Texas and I’m in Austin and we are conducting a remote interview with Bill Balboa, who is based in the Brazoria, Texas, area. And he is the executive director of the Matagorda Bay Foundation. And previously, he served in the Texas A&M AgriLife – Sea Grant Texas program, and before that worked for 26 years in the Texas Parks Wildlife Coastal Fisheries Division. He has worked in a number of areas of coastal habitat and wildlife protection here in the state, with many efforts on behalf of Eastern oysters.
David Todd [00:01:49] And so today will aim to talk about his life and career and especially focus on his work in oyster conservation and restoration as sort of an example of the many diverse things he’s been working on.
David Todd [00:02:05] So with that, I’d like to ask you a question about your childhood, and if there might have been any people or events who were a big influence in your interest in working with animals and the coast and oysters in particular?
Bill Balboa [00:02:27] You know, there were actually two folks when I was small. I was born in the Rio Grande Valley. And my father was a high school counselor, and we moved to a couple of different places in the Valley: Mission, Texas, and I lived mostly in Brownsville. But the first person, it was, I think, had a big influence on my love for the natural environment was a friend of my father’s in Mission, Texas. His name was Bill Valverde. And I called him Uncle Bill. He, I think he’s still the current International Game Fish Association record holder for alligator gar on rod and reel. And he caught that, I think, in the 1950s in the Rio Grande River. And so he, he started showing me pictures when I was five or six years old of his large fish, and he was also a naturalist and had a ranch down there in South Texas. So he introduced me to diamondback rattlesnakes, which I thought were very interesting. He also rehabilitated injured animals he found on the ranch or in the nearby areas. So I got to see great horned owls and badgers and other creatures like that up close and in person. So he was, he was one of my first big personal influence.
Bill Balboa [00:03:43] And secondly was, my father was working on an advanced degree and it just so happened his mentor professor lived in Port Isabel. And so when my father would go down and meet with his mentor professor in Port Isabel – she lived right on the water – and so I would, I would go down, and I loved to fish, and so I would explore the coastline there behind her house.
Bill Balboa [00:04:07] And so those were my first, you know, real big introductions into the natural world. And, and that was just reinforced by the fact that we lived a block away from an oxbow lake in Brownsville. And so I spent most of my time. I just had this natural love and affinity for nature and all things natural. So that was pretty much how I spent my spare time.
David Todd [00:04:33] Yeah. You mentioned this mentor that your father had in Port Isabel. Do you recall her name?
David Todd [00:04:43] Yes, it was Dr. Leigh Peck. And she, and my father, his master’s thesis was on, exploring cultural bias in standardized testing. My father was from Mexico. And Dr. Leigh Peck was a professor in psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. And she was sort of a professor emeritus and was living in the Valley. And that’s who he worked with. And, you know, after I think it was after Beulah, I found several tarpon carcasses washed up in her backyard and took scales and tried to conceal them in my bedroom at home. But my mother found them because of the smell, and that was the end of the scales. But yeah. Dr. Leigh Peck, she was also the author. She wrote a book called Pecos Bill and Lightning and also another book called, “They were Made of Rawhide”, which had to do with Texas history, so she was a great storyteller.
David Todd [00:05:44] That’s great. You know, I think it’s interesting how so much of teaching is, is wrapped up in storytelling and giving those kind of anecdotes that, you know, give some color to the facts that you’re trying to pass on. Much like what you’re doing today.
Bill Balboa [00:06:03] Right.
David Todd [00:06:04] So let’s talk a little bit about your education. I think you received a B.A.A.S. from Southwest Texas State, where you also studied in the Graduate School of Biology, and you also spent time at the Graduate School of Wildlife and Fisheries Science at Texas A&M and have also been enrolled at the Environmental Management Program at the UH- Clear Lake Graduate School of Business Administration. Were there any classmates or teachers that you met in all that schooling that might have led to your interest in nature and science and oysters as well?
Bill Balboa [00:06:44] Yeah. You know, I went to college. I graduated from high school in 1978 in Austin, and I was in love with the Hill Country and the streams and it was quite a change from Brownsville. We moved up to Austin from Brownsville in the late ’60s, and so I was exposed to a whole ‘nother kind of environment and it was a wonderful experience. But I went into the Marine Corps after high school, so I was when I came back in 1982, I started college and I I felt a little displaced. You know, being, starting college four years after my my high school cohort and I was kind of shy. And I started in computer science and was doing pretty well, but realized that I really loved the biology coursework.
Bill Balboa [00:07:31] So I went and met with a fellow named Dr. Stan Sissom, who was a professor there that taught invertebrate zoology and most of the marine science classes. And I expressed an interest in marine biology from my childhood. I said, “You know, I’m really interested in marine science”, and, you know, back in, back in those days, you know, there was, being politically correct wasn’t always important. And he sort of scowled at me and he said, “What are you as a surfer or a SCUBA diver?” Because, you know, I found out later from Dr. Sissom that he didn’t feel like many people that wanted to study marine science were serious, that they just they were beach bums basically, who were just trying to find a way to get back on the beach.
Bill Balboa [00:08:20] But Dr. Sissom and I became friends. I did well in school and he actually became my major professor in graduate school. So he was, he was my first big influence. We took lots of classes and field trips to the coast and I worked with him doing that.
Bill Balboa [00:08:37] And he also introduced me to Dr. Sammy Ray at Texas A&M in Galveston. So Dr. Ray was my second academic mentor. Then he also became a friend for, for a very long time, throughout my Parks and Wildlife career as well. And Dr. Ray was a, he started at A&M in the 1950s and all he studied was oysters and oyster diseases and things like that. So that was sort of my introduction to oysters and the diversity of oyster reefs and and just, you know, the sort of the form and function of oysters in Texas. So Stan Sissom at Southwest Texas State and Dr. Sammy Ray at Texas A&M University in Galveston were my big university academic mentors.
David Todd [00:09:29] Okay. Well, something else I wanted to ask you. For some people, you know that kind of formal education and a personal mentor is really important. But then for others, there are sort of cultural artifacts, you know, books, or films, or TV shows, things that you saw or read or experienced in some way that can be very important to you. And I was curious if there’s anything like that, that, that you could point to.
Bill Balboa [00:09:59] Yeah, absolutely. And I will say that what really cultured my, my interest from a child on was the public library basically. My mother was an English teacher, and during the summer we would go to the public library wherever we lived and we were allowed to check out a certain number of books. There were some authors: Robert McClung, who wrote a lot of children’s books on, on nature things – bears and other wildlife and herps and stuff like that, reptiles and things. And of course, Sterling North wrote the book Rascal about the raccoon. And I read Zane Gray and I read Fred Gibson’s Old Yeller, and that series of books. But I also read Roy Bedichek, “The Adventures of a Texas Naturalist” and books by J. Frank Dobie. And so I, you know, I was getting, you know, most of, a lot of this started in the Rio Grande Valley. And so when I started reading a lot of these books, I started getting exposure to, you know, the marine world, not just in Texas, but elsewhere, and also the natural environment all over Texas, United States and different places. And so books were very, very important.
Bill Balboa [00:11:12] And then as far as movies or TV, I think anyone who is of my age that went into marine science would say, you know, Jacques Cousteau’s programs, the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, National Geographic programs, and the Disney nature shows that they had on back in the day were also really influential in you know, stimulating interest and maintaining interest.
David Todd [00:11:38] That’s really interesting. Sounds like you had lots of influences from, from print to TV to, you know, just absorbing, I guess, what was around you with your, your mentors in school and then growing up in the Valley.
David Todd [00:11:55] Well, I guess the next thing I’d be curious to know about is how you might have landed at Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Coastal Fisheries Department, where I believe you served from 1988 through 2014. How did you get started there?
Bill Balboa [00:12:17] Well, you know that the answer there is, my wife got pregnant and I was in graduate school in Southwest Texas State and she felt like, you know, it was time to get a job with benefits. And so I actually left the graduate program before I finished it. And I had applied for several jobs and truthfully, you know, as I was as I was pursuing this biology career, my main focus was invertebrate zoology and with a specific interest in parasites. And you know, I never really thought about a career other than maybe doing some teaching, right? I thought, “Well, you know, I can work through my masters, get a Ph.D., and I can teach.” And so that was sort of just the only focus I had at the time.
Bill Balboa [00:13:03] And so when, when I started looking for jobs, I thought, “Well, where am I going to work?” You know, with the classes I’ve taken, you know, who will hire me? And I applied many, many times at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Office. I think I submitted something anywhere between 14 and 17 applications. And back in the day, it was all handwritten. You know, you didn’t get to type out a template, you know, and fill in the blanks. So I did a lot of that and I got two interviews. One was with Inland Fisheries and the other was with Coastal Fisheries in Palacios. And so that was in 1988, and I was interviewed in Palacios and I got hired. And yeah, so that that that started my career there in just working in Matagorda Bay. It was it was an eye-opening, you know start to my, my new life, and it was a whole lot of fun, too.
David Todd [00:14:04] So what was your first exposure to oysters when you landed there in Palacios?
Bill Balboa [00:14:15] My first exposure to oysters was probably my first day on the water. You know, coming from central Texas, you know, I had had, I had taken several marine science classes, so I was pretty well versed in common and Latin names of a lot of the organisms, particularly invertebrates. And but I had never really spent much time on the water on the Texas coast. I didn’t have much boat operating experience and I was hired in February.
Bill Balboa [00:14:41] So it was pretty cold, and my first trip on the water with a man that became one of my mentors, Joe Kana, was to go count oyster boats. And we went out on a very cold sleeting day and we went out and we went from Palacios and drove around in the bay and towards east Matagorda Bay looking for, for oyster boats. And we, we tallied them up and came back and then called the number into Austin. And that was my first real big exposure to how oysters were actually commercially harvested because I had no clue before that.
David Todd [00:15:22] That’s interesting. So one of your first exposures to the species was really also an exposure to the fishery and the industry that harvested them?
Bill Balboa [00:15:34] Yes. Yes, that’s right.
David Todd [00:15:37] And this, this counting program was an effort to, was it sort of a regulatory thing or was it more just an inventory?
Bill Balboa [00:15:48] Well, you know, Parks & Wildlife, when I started, they, they did a couple of different things with oystering and with shrimping. They would look at, say, opening day counts of shrimping. You know, they would, they would they would fly over Texas bays and they’d count the number of boats that were shrimping. And I think, you know, this was sort of a similar thing. They were trying to look at the numbers of boats out there as sort of a proxy for harvest pressure in any given bay. You know, so, you know, like in Matagorda Bay, we counted the oyster boats and there may be 15, you know, so in Galveston there was probably many more than that at the time. And so it was, I would say, to answer your question, it was, it was regulatory, but it was also management, if that makes sense.
David Todd [00:16:36] OK, well, let me ask you about these oysters that you were trying to manage. Can you give us like a quick ABC sort of introduction to the life history of the Eastern oyster?
Bill Balboa [00:16:55] Sure. Like many other bivalves or, you know, clam-type things that have two shells, oysters are filter-feeders, which means they, that they basically pump water through their body. They have, they have an inlet and an output. And so they pump water in and internal organs filter particulates out of the water. So cleaner water goes out and they have a process of, internally, of sorting the food from non-food product and they discard the non-food and obviously they ingest the food particles. And that’s how they live.
Bill Balboa [00:17:36] They spawn generally in the late spring, early summer through early fall. It’s as the water temperature sort of warms up. And there’s a couple of peaks within that, within that time period. And what’s interesting about oysters is, you know, when they spawn and the eggs are fertilized and you know, the way they spawn, is they, they basically flap their shells open and closed. So they’re spending a lot of energy during the spring and summer spawning because it takes a lot of energy to open and close their shells to excrete the reproductive products. And when the eggs are fertilized, the larvae actually swim around. They’re mobile. And they can swim around and they look for something hard to stick on. So that’s why people will see beer bottles with oysters stuck to them or sticks or whatever else. But most commonly, the oysters will set on mom or dad, or their uncle or aunt, or other shells within, within the vicinity. And within about two months, they’re actually sexually mature.
Bill Balboa [00:18:38] And so another interesting thing about oyster reproduction is most small oysters are male, and as they grow larger, they will, they will turn into females. And, and so that’s sort of the life history there, in a nutshell.
David Todd [00:18:58] OK. Well, I was interested to see that while you were at Texas Parks and Wildlife, you were responsible not just for monitoring and conserving the Eastern oysters, but also just generally assessing the shoreline habitats and keep an eye on the fishery and ecological health. Can you help us understand the, the general role of oyster reefs on the Texas coast and maybe give us a quick introduction to their status and you know, the historic trends that you’ve, you’ve seen?
Bill Balboa [00:19:36] Sure. So oysters on the Texas coast: you know, oysters need fresh water. They need a salinity that’s lower than Gulf salinity for a number of reasons. But so where you find oysters is, say, from, you know, Galveston/Sabine area down the coast to get to around Corpus Christi Bay. Below that, there are some oysters, but they’re not there in great abundance.
Bill Balboa [00:20:04] And so the role that they play on the Upper Texas coast, they are the only real hard-bottom habitat we have on the coast in Texas. You know, other, other coasts may have coral reef or rock or things like that. But, but the oysters take a place, you know, on most middle and upper coast bays, you know where generally it would be a flat, open expanse of clay or silt or something, and so oysters provide this complex, hard-bottom habitat that provides all these nooks and crannies for things to hide in. They also filter the water so they improve the water quality. They provide fisheries habitat and a place for fish to feed because lots of small crabs and other critters live inside the oyster reefs and all of the, the little hidey holes that are created by the shell. And then also, oysters help protect shorelines. They act as a natural breakwater.
Bill Balboa [00:21:05] But, you know, as far as the status of oysters during my time with TPW: when I first started, you know, it seemed like they were pretty much holding their own. The trend was pretty much stable. You know, there’s a lot of fluctuation, though, in oyster populations. You know, you could have real good oyster production in Galveston Bay and poor oyster production in Matagorda Bay if one area had good rainfall amounts that helped sustain oysters and the other was, you know, experiencing a drought. So oyster production is really variable, and it depends a lot on the salinity levels and things like that. So, but overall, amongst all of the natural variability in my career, it seemed like the oyster population was trending along pretty well until, I would say sometime in the 2000s, and you know, we had some hurricanes, we had some floods, we had some droughts and they came in very close time to each other.
Bill Balboa [00:22:08] And I think that really, that really affected our, the production of each year crop that would be sustaining the harvest from year to year. And it appears now that, that oysters have been in decline for some time. Not having seen Parks & Wildlife data since I retired in 2014, I believe that there are still some issues you know, with, with the numbers of Eastern oysters on the Texas coast with regard to, you know, sustaining the amount of harvest that’s happening.
David Todd [00:22:38] OK. You know, I think that while you were at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, you studied the role of oyster reefs in the biology of spotted seatrouts and, and I thought it might be interesting, it’s something I think you mentioned kind of in passing about the role that that these oyster reefs provide, as, you know, with the nooks and crannies, of sort of forming a place to hide and feed. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about that larger ecological role of oyster reefs beyond their niche as a place that oysters live. Does that make sense?
Bill Balboa [00:23:24] Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And you know, you know, one of the things that, you know, to sort of go off for a little bit of a tangent here. You know, one of the things that I’ve had throughout my career with Parks & Wildlife is I’ve always maintained a high level of curiosity about things that I was observing. That’s not necessarily a pat on the back, it’s just part of my nature. And, you know, part of Parks & Wildlife management strategy for monitoring and managing large finfish like red drum and spotted sea trout, black drum, those things, is we set gillnets on the shorelines in the spring and fall, and we look at long-term trends of the numbers that we catch in those gillnets.
Bill Balboa [00:24:13] Well, in those gillnets, some of the data we collect has to do with gender of certain species, and one of those species was spotted sea trout. And one of the things that I always noticed was we never really seemed to have a lot of male trout on the shorelines, which I thought was weird. But you know, a lot of animals will have sort of disproportionate numbers of males and females, and that’s just how they balance their species. Well, Parks & Wildlife also conducts angler surveys where we go to boat ramps and count fish that are being landed. And I noticed, particularly coming from East Matagorda Bay in the springtime, that fishing guides were landing almost exclusively male spotted sea trout because they would filet them in front of me. And I could see what the, what the sex of the animal was as they were fileting the fish.
Bill Balboa [00:25:03] And I worked there long enough to know some of the guides and I asked them, I said, “Where are you catching these fish?” And the places they told me that they were catching them were three or four large oyster reefs in the center of the bay. So I thought that was rather curious. And so I got permission to, for the upcoming gillnet season, to pair one net on each reef with shoreline sites. As we went through the gillnet season, what we found was, sure enough, there’s a preponderance of males spotted sea trout on oyster reefs during the spring, which we didn’t know before. So, and we also found that the species composition of fish on oyster reefs was different than that on shorelines. For instance, we’d get hardhead catfish on the shore. We didn’t get very many hardhead catfish on the reefs off-shore. We got gafftopsail catfish. And so there were some other things that people would consider you to be expected more black drum, that kind of thing.
Bill Balboa [00:26:01] But it was just really interesting to me to see that these particular reefs, which were, were different than a lot of reefs because they hadn’t been harvested a lot. So they actually, their shape was actually mound-shaped and they, they came up off the bottom maybe three or four feet where the top of the reef touched the water surface. So there was significant vertical relief to these reefs.
Bill Balboa [00:26:24] So that really piqued my interest. And so, you know, I sort of pursued that when I, I got transferred to Galveston and looked at sampling oyster reefs. And it seems to hold true for particular kinds of reefs that are of a particular shape that they, they, they have similar species composition and they hold more male spotted sea trout.
Bill Balboa [00:26:43] So to me, you know, it was, it was, it was a big revelation to me that, you know, these reefs, even though they’re fairly close to the shorelines, were, were playing a different sort of role, and holding a different composition of fish than the shorelines. And so I felt like, you know, that was time well spent studying those reefs and looking at the species composition and, and the male / female ratios of spotted sea trout there.
David Todd [00:27:10] That’s, that’s really intriguing. So the reefs not only were, you know, supporting a lot of vital and diverse fish, but, but different kinds and different genders from maybe the shoreline.
Bill Balboa [00:27:26] Yes, absolutely. And, and I believe that, you know, they, they, they run certain models in Parks Wildlife to look at population analysis or to forecast populations. And if I’m not mistaken, they, they actually adjusted the male / female ratio in some of their virtual population models to, to account for the numbers that we were seeing on oyster reefs, because it was, it was something that really I think, I think most of the people that work at Coastal Fisheries, when they saw the data, I think it was pretty surprising to all of them.
David Todd [00:28:02] Well, that’s great. I love this story of how, you know, the tea leaves, you know, seeing, seeing these, these guides fileting fish that they’d caught on, you know, a certain part of the bay, near these reefs, parlayed into a, you know, better understanding for the nature of the whole ecosystem out there.
David Todd [00:28:26] So I think that you mentioned, in passing, we were talking about the trends of oyster reefs that in the, I guess, the aughts or, you know, the early part of the 21st century, a lot of these bays started to have, have some trouble with freshwater. I may be saying this wrong, but when you were at Texas Parks and Wildlife, you were the representative to the Regional Water Planning Group for Trinity / San Jacinto, Lavaca and Colorado rivers. And then again, later, when you were at an extension agent in Matagorda County, you were looking at these freshwater inflows. And I was curious if you could talk a little bit about the role of, of inflows in the health of these oyster reefs and how that might have panned out in some of these trends that you know you more recently have seen in oyster reefs?
Bill Balboa [00:29:29] Sure. So I think I did mention in passing, you know, that, you know, where you find the bulk of the oyster reefs on the Texas coast are, say, from Copano Bay to the North. And that’s where you’ll see the, the lion’s share of the freshwater that historically has flowed to Texas bays. You know, the Colorado River is a huge watershed, you know, then you have the Trinity / San Jacinto going into Galveston and the Guadalupe, San Antonio, San Marcos Rivers down, down in the San Antonio bay system. And so historically, before the population grew to what it is today in Texas, you know, there was lots of freshwater that flowed. Of course you had, you know, we’ve always had drought in Texas and we’ve always had wet periods. So it would alternate drought and flood, you know, seasonally.
Bill Balboa [00:30:18] But what’s happened, particularly in Matagorda Bay, is that as the populations have grown in Austin, we see sort of a drought that’s, the onset of drought, that’s, that’s generated by conservative water management measures to make sure that Austin has sufficient water supply. So the releases of fresh water for environmental benefit will be reduced earlier. And so we have drought that’s onset earlier because of water management to take care of the freshwater needs of central Texans.
Bill Balboa [00:30:58] And to back up, you know, oysters like, the Gulf oysters, like moderated salinity. And what that means is the Gulf of Mexico is anywhere between 32 to 35 parts per thousand salinity, and oysters like something, ideally, about half of that. And so, where you will find oysters, in Texas, if you look at maps, is you will find them in a place somewhere between the mouth of the river and a Gulf pass. And it will be somewhere in that zone where the oysters have formed larger reefs over time, because those are the areas where the salinity was optimum for oysters to grow. And the reason they like the moderated salinity is freshwater brings nutrients, which help produce phytoplankton, which oysters feed on.
Bill Balboa [00:31:48] A reduced salinity also helps keep certain predators away, and also helps reduce the incidence of certain diseases that, that will infect oysters and weaken them. It’s not a disease that hurts humans. It’s a disease of oysters that as they get heavier and heavier infestations, they get weaker and weaker, and they can actually succumb during stressful periods. And so that’s a big issue with oysters.
Bill Balboa [00:32:15] So the fresh water, it brings in the food for the oysters. It helps reduce predation from fish and crustaceans and stuff like that, by keeping the water fresher and to a point to where a lot of those predator species, they don’t prefer that lower salinity. So that’s how the freshwater works in maintaining the health of oysters.
David Todd [00:32:39] Well, that helps sort of set out the, I guess, the mechanics of freshwater inflows and their impact, in turn, on the bay salinity regime, then on the oysters. You know, just to kind of illustrate this, can you talk a little bit about the, the impact of, of the drought, the really serious drought, that hit Texas about 10 years ago, about 2011, ’12 into ’13?
Bill Balboa [00:33:08] Yeah. You know, one of the, I was, I was working in Galveston Bay at the time and, and the really interesting thing about it was there were almost no oysters at the large reefs historically that were fished in Galveston Bay, when the season opened. And what was sort of interesting was that unbeknownst to us, meaning the younger generation of Parks and Wildlife biologists, there was a bunch of shell that had been placed in Trinity Bay up near the Trinity River delta by, by someone in the, in the early 1900s, like mid-1900s somewhere in there. The way we found out about that was because all of the, the entire, it seemed like the entire oyster fleet in Galveston Bay was suddenly up in Trinity fishing in an area that was maybe 30 or 40 acres in size, and just in that spot. And obviously they were catching oysters there.
Bill Balboa [00:34:12] So we had to do some digging and we found out from a former Parks and Wildlife employee named Lynn Benefield, who was an oyster manager for a very long time. And he told us about the person that had planted shell there. So what had happened was, was that the oysters in the bigger part of the bay had succumbed to disease or predation or whatever it might have been. And so production was very low in a bigger part of the bay, where the salinity was high and approaching Gulf salinity. But farther up the bay, where there was still a little bit of beneficial effect from river flow, the shell up there had actually produced oysters. So oyster reproduction happened. The larvae set on the shell up there, and since the salinity was good for oyster growth, they grew there. And they were able to do that because the drought was extended for many years, right, several years. And so they obviously had reproduction. And you know, it’ll take an oyster about two years to get to a market size, which the drought was longer than two years.
Bill Balboa [00:35:15] So and I don’t know if that’s real clear, but basically what it is is, is, you know, it demonstrates that wherever the optimum salinity is, if there is substrate suitable for oysters to reproduce on, generally, they will do that. Right? So if there’s a moderated salinity zone in the bay and there are shell on the bottom, you will probably find oysters there during the drought. And once the freshwater comes back and the salinity is reduced, the larger reefs will be colonized by larval oysters. And then in a couple of years, you will have adult reproduction again. I mean, you’ll have a production of adults suitable for commercial harvest.
Bill Balboa [00:35:59] I don’t know if that was very clear, but that’s kind of the role of the, the freshwater and the drought effect on oysters.
David Todd [00:36:07] No, that’s really interesting. So that was, I guess, the impact of a, of a drought, which I guess is maybe a little bit easier to isolate since it’s, you know, you can track the, the weather conditions and all. But, you know, I think another one of the factors I’ve read about and you’d know a lot more about this than I would, but has been the construction of of dams, you know, starting in the late ’50s and then going through, I guess, the early ’80s and their impact on freshwater flows, in good times and bad in, you know, flood and drought and all different kinds of conditions. Do you think that there’s been an impact seen from those dams on the oyster populations on the Texas coast?
Bill Balboa [00:37:02] Well, I would say yes, and I and the reason I say, “yes”, is because, you know, oysters evolved around naturalized flows. And, you know, once you, once you put a dam in a river, then you, and you hold flows back, you have automatically altered the naturalized, you know, sort of scheme of river flow. And now it’s, you know, when we were in the water-planning process, one of the things we were trying to, to mimic was a naturalized freshwater flow regime, you know, which, which would capture, you know, the seasonal rainfall and that kind of thing and try to reproduce that in the bay through a managed flow aspect. But you know what they what they have to do with these dams now is, depending on what they’re forecasting, dry conditions and how dry, they will release the water generally in little slugs instead of trickling it over time. So the, the whole naturalized flow scheme of water going down, you know, following the course of the river after rainfalls, or not following it during dry periods, has all been changed. And so, yeah, I would say that dams and water management practices have changed how water reaches the bay.
Bill Balboa [00:38:27] And I mean, you know, one thing in Matagorda Bay that people don’t realize is that, you know, Matagorda Bay used to be one large estuary. It wasn’t two bays as it is now with east and west portions. And this is sort of tied to the dams on the Colorado because the dams were built to, to perform two functions. One was to provide sustainable water for agriculture, and two was for flood control. And so to deal with floods down on the lower end of the river in the Matagorda area, they dredged a channel across Matagorda Bay and they diverted all of the Colorado River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. And that effectively separated the bay into two pieces.
Bill Balboa [00:39:14] And so, you know, when you look at how freshwater, or the lack thereof, or whether water management has affected oysters in Matagorda Bay, you know, there, there are a lot of bigger issues that happened historically that, that took water away completely. And then in the early ’90s, they re-diverted flows into the west part of Matagorda Bay, you know. And so then you add on top of that, you know, dam construction, and then population growth. And so it’s layer upon layer upon layer of alterations to naturalized flows. And it also demonstrates the resilience of the Eastern oyster to be able to, you know, come back and maintain a level of productivity that allows for harvesting and ecosystem health.
David Todd [00:40:02] Well, that’s interesting how you explain that, just as sort of these layers and layers of interventions and changes and, and how difficult I guess it is to isolate the impacts from, you know, the dams upstream, or the, the channel that goes to the Gulf, or the channel that is rerouted to the western part of the bay. It’s, it must be terribly complicated.
David Todd [00:40:30] Well, you know, maybe we could talk about another aspect of, of factors in these oyster reefs, and that’s just how tropical storms can have an impact on, on reefs and on those, some of those coastal systems. I think that, that you worked at one point purchasing and sacking oyster shells to plug a washover at Salt Lake between two Texas coastal bays. And I think that is such a cool kind of illustration of the role that oysters can play in protecting and hardening coasts, but also how you can, you know, sort of intervene to do that artificially. And I was hoping you could talk about that experience.
Bill Balboa [00:41:23] Yeah. So, you know, the, the reason for, for actually initiating this project had to do with some damage that was caused by Hurricane Claudette in 2003. And it actually, Hurricane Claudette, had widened and deepened the washover into a small bay, and currents were flowing through that bay with increasing velocity. So we were losing habitat in that smaller bay. It was eroding away oyster reef and shell ridges. It was taking away marsh and seagrass. Adjacent to that bay was another small bay, and it was still intact. But the currents that had been altered in moving through this bay were starting to erode into this intact smaller bay.
Bill Balboa [00:42:15] So a bunch of volunteers here locally and I got together and we bought a whole bunch of oyster shell from a shucking house. And we put the shell in these webbing sacks. So the plan was to build up sort of an artificial reef, if you will, near the area where the little intact bay was about to be breached, the separating land there. And so we, there was, there must have been 40 or 50 folks volunteering on two different occasions, and we sacked a lot of shell, and we basically built the barrier to try to interrupt the current so that it wouldn’t either, I don’t think, you know, in our mind, we thought we would stop it completely, but we felt like it might slow it down enough until a larger project that is underway right now could address the larger breach that was actually the source of the problem. So we spent the better part of, I guess, all altogether, you know, three or four days sacking shell and in three or four days transporting the shell from a boat launch site in these sacks to stack on the bottom until they got to the water surface in sort of an arc shape in front of this vulnerable area.
Bill Balboa [00:43:39] And, and it’s worked pretty well so far. You know, we’ve, we had a good a good salinity year that allowed for oyster spat, the small oysters, to set on the shell. And so that was good. This last year was very wet. Salinity was very low. So we didn’t see much oyster colonization on those sacks. But it was a very rewarding project because I think it’s really important for people to get involved, people with interests and people who use the bay for recreational fishing or other things, to help, you know, restore areas that are in jeopardy of being lost. And so that was, it was a very fulfilling effort.
David Todd [00:44:25] That’s great, it seems like you accomplish a couple of things there. You actually do something good for the resource, but you also sort of tap that, that, I guess you’d sort of call “latent interest” among volunteers and people who love the bay to actually be able to do something about it. You know, and that’s, that’s a great opportunity.
David Todd [00:44:49] So I wonder if you can sort of talk more generally about the impact of tropical storms on oyster reefs. I think you mentioned the kind of scouring that Hurricane Claudette had, had brought to the bay. Could you talk a little bit about Hurricane Ike and its impact on, on Galveston Bay?
Bill Balboa [00:45:17] Sure. Yeah. So I, I actually had been transferred to the Galveston Bay system to run that office up there, right about, just before Ike came to visit. And, you know, so what Ike did was, you know, where it made landfall, well, first, let me back up for one second. So Galveston is, from an oyster perspective, it’s there’s tremendous commercial fishing pressure in Galveston Bay on the reefs that are in Galveston Bay. And the process of harvesting commercial oysters is: oyster boats go out there and they will they will turn in a circle and they drop these iron dredges off the side of the boat. They drag along the bottom. They pick them up. They dump the oysters on the deck. They cull them. They throw the small ones off and they sack the larger ones. And so basically what they’re doing is they’re removing live oysters. So after many, many, many, many years of fishing, you go from a mound shape to a flat shape, right?
Bill Balboa [00:46:20] And so when Hurricane Ike moved into Galveston Bay, it moved across Bolivar Island and it moved a lot of sediment into the bay. And some of that sediment, because the oyster reefs had been fished down to what some folks refer to as, as a “pancake reef”, with no vertical elevation, some of them were completely covered, some were partially covered with sediment. And what that does is the sediment will bury the oysters and they will die because they can’t feed. They also can’t breathe. Oysters, like fish, take oxygen from the water, and if you bury them under silt, it makes it very difficult for them to either breathe or feed.
Bill Balboa [00:47:04] The other thing it does is it prevents access by larval oysters to the harder substrate that those shells provide, which is how oysters reproduce as I told you earlier. The larvae from around the island for something hard to set on, which is generally shell. So if that shell is buried, those larvae can’t set on the shell.
Bill Balboa [00:47:24] So, so you have sort of a double whammy happening. You know, you have an immediate impact to the oysters that are there on the reef by being buried. And then you have a secondary impact with any oyster larvae trying to set will not be able to set.
Bill Balboa [00:47:39] So Ike buried a bunch of reefs and it also brought a pretty good slug of freshwater into the bay, which also damaged some of the oysters as well.
Bill Balboa [00:47:50] You know, oysters will recover from floods, they will recover from droughts. But it’s much, much more difficult for a buried oyster reef to become productive again. And that’s kind of what, that’s kind of what Ike did to Galveston Bay Reefs.
David Todd [00:48:07] So I guess you’d distinguish Hurricane Ike from other sources of big freshwater inflows like Memorial Day, Tax Day and Harvey storms, where it was maybe more about the water and less about the silt. Is that, is that true?
Bill Balboa [00:48:28] Yeah. Yeah. It’s um, you know, having lived on the coast for most of my adult life, I’ve found that all storms are different, you know? And, and you know, speaking of the damage done by Claudette, it was a small Category One hurricane. It completely obliterated an oyster reef just off of Palacios, right? I, I’d always wondered, you know, where and how historic reefs have been, were damaged, you know, to the point where they were no longer productive reefs. And you know, Claudette maybe is one reason, right? So each storm has a character to it.
Bill Balboa [00:49:03] And when Harvey came through this area, I live in the Columbia Bottomland forest, and there was no wind, really to speak of, because it came in down around, around Aransas, Rockport area. Well, what happened here was we had tremendous rainfall, and in the Galveston area too, and that water flowed into the bay and, you know, for the landscape to drain in, for the rivers to go down, it took weeks. And what that did effectively is that it reduces the bay salinity to almost fresh. And if that, that occurs, as Harvey did, you know, during the spawning season, basically, you know, or at the end of the spawning season, or just post-spawn, you kill the next year. You know that, that, that whole spawn, right? You have basically eliminated all those babies from being available two years from then to be harvested. You also probably killed all of the adult oysters as well. So that’s, that’s what the freshwater part does.
Bill Balboa [00:50:08] You know, if you have a big storm like Ike, where you have the, the storm surge and the wave motion moving loads of sediment, then you have the burying. And you also potentially have the erosive force of Claudette and it just knocking shell over and moving large things. I mean, Ike, for instance, when I drove on Bolivar, it moved very, very large farm equipment very, very far away from where it was parked. And this was pretty far inland. So I mean, the power of water to move things is just almost unbelievable. It’s something you have to kind of see for yourself to witness, you know, the ability of it to do that, so you know, you have the force, then you have the salinity reduction. And so, you know, depending on which way the storm comes in, and the size of the storm, you know, and the, and the associated precipitation with it, you know, it’s they’re all different.
David Todd [00:51:10] Boy. You know, you mentioned earlier about this effort to try to use oyster shell to plug a washover at Salt Lake, and, and I think that the you’ve worked a lot on trying to figure out how to restore reefs, and then actually implementing those restorations. And I was hoping that you could talk about those efforts. I think that there was one that you worked on in East Galveston Bay from 2007 to ’14, and then another one at Half Moon Reef. And I was hoping that you could sort of talk about how those projects were conceived and carried out and what you learned from them as you went along. I imagine it was sort of a trial and error. This is all kind of a new, new exploration.
Bill Balboa [00:52:05] Right. It is. And so, you know, the Half Moon Reef project was probably the first on the Texas coast of any scale. You know, in the ’60s, they would chain tires together and other things like that, throw them into the water, you know, with the hopes of creating more oyster habitat. And what they found was storms would move all the chained tires up onto the bank or into shallow water area or bury them, right? So I mean, that kind of relates to the previous question.
Bill Balboa [00:52:35] I got involved with oyster restoration through a friendship I had with a guy that worked for the Nature Conservancy named Mark Dumesnil. And, you know, back then, I guess, 2005, somewhere around there, oyster reef restoration had taken off as, as a restoration technique on the East Coast, Chesapeake area and stuff. It was just coming to Texas. I don’t think Texas had really gotten into the restoration game yet. And so we, we were looking for areas, my friend at the Nature Conservancy and I, to build a reef in Matagorda Bay. And we found one, which was an old historic oyster shoal that had gone away. As I said, you know, where do they go? You know, maybe shell dredging? You know, they used to mine oyster shell out of the bays to use for roadbed and use for livestock feed and other things. And so maybe that was part of it. You know, maybe Carla or maybe, you know, hurricanes that followed, maybe river diversion and salinity changes. Nobody knows. But this reef that was so large that it was a navigation hazard and had a lighthouse on it in the early 1900s, was no longer there.
Bill Balboa [00:53:54] And so when we’re looking for a site. I recommended the historical location of this one large oyster shoal – Half Moon. And so it took him about seven years to get all the funding and everything together, but I believe they restored, the Nature Conservancy restored, about 40 acres of reef. And they used it. They were started by building with large pieces of limestone or large pieces of concrete so that it would be a resilient structure to other storms, because it is in a, in an area of the bay where it is somewhat exposed to a fetch-driven waves and things like that. So that was a large restoration project, and that was in Matagorda Bay. That was Half Moon Reef.
Bill Balboa [00:54:45] That was my first exposure to, you know, how reef restoration can be done in Texas. When I transferred to Galveston, Texas Parks and Wildlife was also beginning to show interest in restoring oyster reefs, and they, they identified a spot in East Matagorda Bay. Their restoration goals were somewhat different than the Nature Conservancy’s. The Nature Conservancy weren’t so concerned with making Half Moon Reef a commercially available or harvestable reef. And because you can’t dredge on large pieces of rock, you’ll lose your gear. It just won’t work.
Bill Balboa [00:55:24] Parks and Wildlife, though, was one of their goals was to actually make it a commercially fishable reef, once the oysters had colonized the area and had grown to a marketable size. So when they built their reef, it was about halfway down the length of East Galveston Bay, and I think it was also somewhere 20 to 40 acres. They used smooth river cobbles that were probably two to three inches across, and they dumped those down into East Galveston Bay. And so I, you know, I helped monitor that by pulling some dredges and looking at how quickly the oysters were setting on the rock, trying to figure out how many oysters were sitting on each little rock and trying to determine how successful the reef was going to be.
Bill Balboa [00:56:13] And so those are my, my first experiences into, into reef building, you know, with, with one with the Nature Conservancy and one with Parks and Wildlife. And both of them were quite successful in their own right, given the goals that they had set.
David Todd [00:56:37] So one of the thing that I was sort of struck by, is, is that these oyster reefs restorations weren’t just seen in isolation as an effort to bring back a resource for itself, but also to see what sort of success or interest you might be able to generate among the anglers and oystermen who would later maybe visit that reef. And I think you did a socioeconomic study of Half Moon Reef that came out in 2016 where you looked at how people interact with these reefs after they’re restored. Can you talk a little bit about what you discovered?
Bill Balboa [00:57:27] Sure. Yeah. So the sort of the, the impetus for doing that survey, I was once again, you know, I was in discussion with my friend at the Nature Conservancy and one of my big interests with building Half Moon Reef was, you know, would it actually show, would anglers be catching a lot of small male trout, legal, but small, on that reef, as they had been doing in East Matagorda Bay on the other reefs that had vertical, you know, relief from the bottom? And that was a question I had. So as we moved forward after completion of the reef, we, we found some funding to do an angler survey, which we borrowed heavily from Parks and Wildlife’s survey protocols. And so we conducted, I think it was probably a six-month angler survey at the Matagorda Harbor, which is one of the largest boat ramps in our area and talked to anglers about, you know, their knowledge of the reef, and, you know, did they find it a successful fishing area?
Bill Balboa [00:58:37] And generally, the overall impression for the reef was, particularly amongst the guides, you know, they found it very successful. They would take clients there when weather permitted because, as I had said, it’s in an open, exposed area. So in the spring, prevailing winds can be pretty brisk. So during those spring days when it’s calm enough for them to actually fish on Half Moon, they’re doing really well on spotted seatrout, very similar to what they did in East Matagorda Bay, those other reefs. So it’s performing and functioning just like the reefs in East Matagorda Bay. It’s holding those trout in the spring and the, I think the most exciting part of the whole restoration was the guides saying, you know, “When are you going to do more,” right? “When, when are you going to do more restoration? And could you do them closer to the boat ramp this time? Because that’s a bit of a run, you know, for us to go. We’ll still, we’ll still keep going. But it sure would be nice if there was more of these restorations done like this, so we could fish them.”.
Bill Balboa [00:59:41] So it was it was a huge success there as far as recreational anglers. And just to, sort of, you know, when it was first built, those reefs are right at the water surface, the crown of the reefs are. Two outboard motorboaters, fishermen, had hit the reef with their motors. And they were talking to me about how can we get money from the Nature Conservancy until people realized that there was a lot of fish on the reef. Once people realized there were fish on the reef, there were no more calls about damaged lower units or outboard motors. Nobody cared at that point. You know, it was all about the fishing. It was fine if you damaged your motor because you know that was the price you paid to get to fish these reefs.
Bill Balboa [01:00:31] It’s a really, it’s a really neat thing that happened out there.
David Todd [01:00:37] That’s great. So it’s interesting to me that that of, you know, you build it and they came. And you built it, maybe for the oysters, you know, in an immediate, kind of direct sense, but they, they also pulled in these other ancillary creatures, all these spotted seatrout? Well, nice.
Bill Balboa [01:00:59] Well, you know, speaking of, of how these reefs get used. I was wondering if, during your multifaceted career – you, you know, you were at Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Extension Service, and the Matagorda Bay Foundation – I wonder if you’ve had a chance to talk to people who have operated in the wild oystering business, you know – the oystermen, and the marinas, and the dealers, and maybe some of the restaurateurs? You know, it’s been such a wild, roller-coaster ride for this industry, I was curious if you’ve learned much from conversations with these people who’ve ridden it out.
Bill Balboa [01:01:43] Yeah. The oyster industry in Texas is really interesting because there are some, you know, in Galveston Bay, the oystering is a little bit different. They have oyster leases there, which are, provide some, the people who have the leases there, to exclusively harvest reefs that they have built. But they’re also able to harvest the public reefs that are open to all folks. And so those folks have made a really good living for themselves, and that program was only open in Galveston. So there is sort of a group of wealthier, more powerful oystermen in the Galveston area.
Bill Balboa [01:02:20] But what’s happened over time is, you know, the oyster fleets have become more mobile. And so they will actually move up and down the coast, you know, because as we as we discussed earlier, you know that one bay may have a good year while another bay has a bad year. And so what that’s done with these guys, it’s really increased competition. And so there’s a lot of discussion amongst the oyster people about, you know, “this is my bay, not your bay,” right? So people are, the competition has gotten to the point where there’s, there’s a little bit of animosity between, between fishing groups. And, you know, they believe that the, the larger fleets moving into their area, say, for instance, the larger fleets from Galveston all coming to Matagorda, you know, the few Matagorda oystermen that work down here feel like that’s not fair.
Bill Balboa [01:03:08] And so that kind of situation and mentality is getting more and more prevalent as time goes forward because these fleets are moving back and forth, you know? And groups like CCA are seeing it, and they’re really trying to work hard to try to figure out ways to work with Parks and Wildlife, to try to understand why that’s happening and address whatever’s driving, you know, this rapid movement of the fleet back and forth. Because when all of the fleet exerts its pressure on a small bay, or in a small area of productivity, they do a lot of damage to those reefs.
Bill Balboa [01:03:47] And you know, I buy wild seafood products, you know, but I think that there has to be a more sustainable way to do some of this. And I think, you know, oysters are very popular. And I think the market, you know, will take care of, you know, some of the management that may need to be implemented, you know, because the demand for oysters is not going to go down. People like to eat oysters. And so I just think that, you know, maybe we need to step back and look at what’s happening right now, how the fishermen are working, and what we can do to potentially manage and sustain the oyster fishery a little bit better these days.
David Todd [01:04:29] I’ve been interested following, just as a kind of layperson, the efforts by Texas Parks and Wildlife to, to reduce the fleet, to sort of lower the, the capital intensity of all the, the boats and tongs that are out there on the water. And I was hoping you could sort of talk about some of those efforts to try to reduce that pressure, reduce the size of that fleet.
Bill Balboa [01:04:59] Well, so there is a moratorium on oyster licenses. They no longer, Parks and Wildlife, there is no commercial fleet, commercial fishery in Texas in the coastal waters, where you can go to Parks and Wildlife to buy a license to become a commercial fisherman. So and they call that a limited entry program. So if, if you want to become an oysterman, you will have to find an oysterman who wants to sell his oyster license and buy it from him. Right now, that’s probably not going to be too successful because, you know, oystering has been pretty lucrative and people have made a lot of money off of it.
Bill Balboa [01:05:37] Some of the other things Parks and Wildlife has, have done, are they’ve reduced the number of sacks and the number of days or the hours the oystermen can fish. They’ve closed certain bays to fishing altogether. When oysters and some of the larger bays, due to flooding in Harvey and some of those other things, have been heavily impacted, you know, commercial fishermen are very creative and what they ended up doing was they, they started going to reefs that were on the shoreline in knee-deep water and picking up oysters by hand. And that was something that we had never seen really, to any degree on the Texas coast. And so Parks and Wildlife saw that, and they were able to, they were able to sort of stop that by saying, you know, you can’t harvest oysters within 300 feet of the shoreline.
Bill Balboa [01:06:25] And so they’ve made those changes, and they’ve also implemented a program, I believe they call it their stoplight program, where it reduces or stops oyster harvest on reefs, where a preponderance of oysters are under the legal size. And so that’s one of the ways, the one of the ways they’ve reduced fishing pressure on the oyster harvest.
Bill Balboa [01:06:48] The only downside to one of those, which is a stoplight program, and this is my personal opinion, is that it creates that situation where the fleet will move. If one area that has been productive is suddenly closed because the preponderance of oysters are smaller, and there’s another area somewhere down the coast like, say, they close an area in Matagorda Bay, but Rockport or Copano still has a lot of oysters, all of the boats that were fishing in Matagorda Bay are going to go down to Copano and fish down there. So it creates sort of a, what they call a, “derby fishery” scenario, where people are rushing to this place to get oysters and rushing back.
Bill Balboa [01:07:27] But, that being said, you know, trying to manage these kinds of things with all of the environmental variables that affect oyster health and oyster growth, it is a daunting, daunting task. And I would say that, that, you know, not because I work with Parks and Wildlife, but just because, you know, I, I know the long history of what they’ve been doing and they’ve been managing these fisheries for years. And I think they’ve done a really, really good job. And I think that they will find a solution and, and implement that solution somewhere here in the near future.
Bill Balboa [01:08:02] Well, and I think I’ve read that one of the solutions, or at least sort of, you know, a partial answer, to reducing the pressure on these wild oyster populations is to try to develop some sort of oyster mariculture in Texas. And I think that that you worked with Dr. Joe Fox in trying to further that effort, and I hope that you might be able to talk about that effort.
Bill Balboa [01:08:30] Yeah. Five or six years ago, when I was with Extension, I met Dr. Fox and through a Parks and Wildlife colleague, Shane Bonnot, who is now, I think, he works for CCA now, and, and we started talking about oyster farming and we were sort of bantering back and forth about, you know, why is Texas the only state that doesn’t have an oyster farming industry? And so we started talking to people and I helped organize a bunch of meetings with oyster industry stakeholders, the dredge fishermen, to see what they thought about it and would they support it. And they started moving forward. And Dr. Fox, you know, with help from a restaurateur down in Corpus named Brad Lomax and some other folks, you know, we initially worked with Senator Bonnen, who became Speaker of the House, Bonin, who was excited about this bill. He passed it on to, oh, I can’t remember, a senator from Corpus, the state representative in Corpus rather, and he carried it on – Hunter, Todd Hunter. And so that moved forward through the Legislature.
Bill Balboa [01:09:49] And, you know, right now, it’s, it’s in its infancy. There is a facility in Palacios. It’s going to start spawning oysters soon. It’s an HRI facility – Harte Research Institute / Texas A&M joint venture And they’re trying to build up this facility as a resource for oyster farming, to spawn oysters, to show people proof-of-concept, to help guide them in the oyster farming process. And you know, I think there’s a future fortune out of the oyster farming industry won’t replace the wild fishery, but what it will do it was it will, it will provide a product to a boutique market for half-shell oysters. And I do think that, you know, working with that and some other, you know, potential options for, you know, oyster harvest in Texas bays, you know that it will help to relieve some of the pressure that we’re seeing in Texas on the wild reefs.
David Todd [01:10:51] So it’s, if I’ve got this right, it sounds like the wild-caught oysters and then these mariculture oysters might be serving two different industries. And they’re not parallel, but, but there’s not a huge amount of overlap. Is, is that right?
Bill Balboa [01:11:11] Yeah, that’s correct. You know, the amount of labor and time you have to put into farming an oyster – to take that oyster and send it to a shucking house and have it shucked and used for frying or something like that, you would never make the money that you need to make to have a successful oyster farming industry. So for an oyster farmer to make money, you know, it’s almost, you know, they almost have to create an appellation like you would a wine. You know, the oysters are grown in a certain region. They will have a certain flavor, a certain character. And it has to be marketed in that way.
Bill Balboa [01:11:45] So you’re right, it’s going to go to two completely different places. You know, the buyer who’s buying a farmed oyster is going to be looking for a very, very high quality half-shell product that is presented in a certain way, you know, as opposed to, you know, the wild-caught oysters that are generally used for, or a lot of them, are used for, for shucking and for other oyster products. Now that’s not to say that wild-caught oysters won’t still be used on the half-shell market, but, you know, given current restaurant trends and things like that, those farmed oysters are really, really growing in popularity all around the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard and even on the Pacific side. So, so yeah, it’s going to be two different markets, I think.
Bill Balboa [01:12:38] I see, you know, looking at your long career on the coast, it’s, it’s really striking how you have worn many hats, you know, whether working for Texas Parks and Wildlife, or for AgriLife, or most recently for Matagorda Bay Foundation. And, and I was wonder if you could talk about the different roles that each of these institutions plays on the coast in general, but also in particular, you know what each can do uniquely best for oysters?
Bill Balboa [01:13:21] Sure. So, you know, Parks and Wildlife, you know, they are, they are the state agency that’s mandated to prevent depletion and waste of coastal resources. And so they are, they are the regulatory body that will manage the fishery to, to achieve those goals, to prevent depletion or the loss, you know, or you know, of a particular fisheries product. And as I said before, that’s a difficult thing to do, but they’re doing it. So their, their job is primarily regulatory. And in that regulatory sort of framework, they have also sort of expanded into enhancement and restoration as well.
Bill Balboa [01:14:10] Texas Sea Grant and AgriLife Extension, they’re looking at providing people like oyster farmers or industry members with science to help them become more efficient at what they’re doing, to provide them with the business science that they need to perhaps become more profitable, or the fishing science, or the farming science, like with oyster farming. AgriLife, A&M Sea Grant and AgriLife are working really hard to try to show people, you know, the benefits of wild seafood, but also the alternative ways to farm oysters and the different gear types and things like that. They’ve been very, very involved in the, in the Gulf shrimp industry in Texas as well, looking at turtle excluder devices and bycatch reduction devices and things like that. Ways, ways to make the fishery more efficient, more profitable.
Bill Balboa [01:15:04] I worked for Parks Wildlife, as I told you, because you know, I, I got into it for one reason, but I fell in love with the Texas coast. I got the job with Texas SeaGrant upon retiring because it brought me back to Matagorda Bay. The reason I came back to Matagorda Bay was, was for a very specific reason. And that is because, to me, Matagorda Bay is the forgotten bay of the Texas coast. Over, throughout my career, conservation dollars were being spent, you know, protecting resources, oysters included, in Corpus Christi Bay and Galveston Bay and all. And, and the primary reason behind that is they have, they have, they are part of the estuary program and they have robust foundations and a lot of advocacy. So the chance to come back here and try, trying to elevate Matagorda Bay and to, to the public, to raise awareness of the issues that we face being connected to Austin through the Colorado River, Some of the impacts it was having on oyster reefs and bay productivity overall, was why I came back with Extension.
Bill Balboa [01:16:21] When I had the opportunity to go to the Foundation, I did that because the Extension and AgriLife and Sea Grant are not advocacy organizations. They are the purveyors of science to industry members. And so being with the Matagorda Bay Foundation has allowed me the latitude to vocally advocate for, and openly advocate for, resources to help protect Matagorda Bay and the oyster resources here, and the wetlands, and all the fisheries. Because, you know, oysters are very, very important on the Texas coast, as I said, especially on the Mid and Upper Texas coast. But you know, they are, the oysters, and the marsh wetlands, and all the other habitats are all tied together in a very intricate way, you know, that, that is, that provides, you know, Texans ample opportunities to fish. You know, they help, they help protect our shores, all these habitats do. They help keep the water clean, they sequester carbon. So they do all of these things for us. And, you know, and I want to be able to, at the Foundation, you know, help Matagorda Bay get the attention that I think it deserves, bring it equal to Corpus and Galveston Bay.
Bill Balboa [01:17:39] And so, you know, you have Parks and Wildlife regulating, you have Sea Grant and Extension providing information to fishermen so their industries can be more profitable, and they can understand new gear techniques. And then the Matagorda Bay Foundation is here strictly to advocate for bay health of the natural resource, you know, so that, you know, we can sustain wise use and make people aware of the value of, the beauty of the bay.
David Todd [01:18:09] Well, the bay is lucky to have you.
David Todd [01:18:14] Is there, is there anything you might like to add? You know, you’ve covered a lot of ground here, from one end of the coast to the other, and, and all the different aspects of oyster reefs, whether it’s, you know, their ,their sensitivity to, to inland floods and storm surges and overharvest. But is there any sort of, I guess, top view that you could give us of your work there on the coast, in particular with oysters?
Bill Balboa [01:18:50] Yeah, I think that is that we are all connected in Texas. You know, the Colorado River goes all the way over to Lamesa, you know, clear across the state, over to the desert, right? And what I think Texans need to understand is that, is that what you do in Austin, or what you do above Austin, or below Austin, affects everything downstream. And so I think what’s most important for us to understand as Texans for the health and the vitality of all of our natural resources, and for Texans themselves, and for the oysters, is that we are all connected, and we share these resources. And so I think it’s really important for people to understand that we are connected and that we do share these resources and that we all have a responsibility to use them wisely, and understand that we share them, and that there are multiple uses and benefits all up and down all of these massive watersheds and these beautiful areas in Texas. And so I think that’s something that’s critical that we understand, as we move forward into the future and start facing some of these things like sea level rise and climate issues and stuff like that, because it’s just going to make management and that much more difficult, and it’s going to make restoration more challenging.
Bill Balboa [01:20:11] So I think Texans need to sort of come together and understand we are connected by all of these diverse natural areas and we need to learn to share them.
David Todd [01:20:21] Well said, it’s really wonderful the way you, you connect all these different places, and, and resources, and people who, who enjoy them and use them.
David Todd [01:20:33] Well, this has been really nice, Bill, and I, unless you have anything to add, I might just say, thank you for your time.
Bill Balboa [01:20:44] I do not and I really appreciate the opportunity to, to speak with you.
David Todd [01:20:50] Well, it’s been a pleasure and I learned a lot, and thank you again for participating in this oral history project.
Bill Balboa [01:20:58] Well, thank you very much.
David Todd [01:20:59] OK, well, you have a good day and I hope our paths cross soon.
Bill Balboa [01:21:03] They will. Thank you very much.
David Todd [01:21:05] All right.
Bill Balboa [01:21:06] Bye bye.
David Todd [01:21:07] Bye.
INTERVIEWEE: Bill Balboa
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: September 20, 2022
LOCATION: Brazoria, Texas, remotely recorded
TRANSCRIBER: Trint, David Todd
SOURCE MEDIA: MP3 audio file
David Todd [00:00:03] Well, good afternoon, David Todd here. And I have the good fortune to be with Bill Balboa. And with his permission, we plan on recording this interview for research and educational work on behalf of the Conservation History Association of Texas, a non-profit here in the state, and for a book and a website for Texas A&M University Press, and finally, for archive at the Briscoe Center for American History, which is based at the University of Texas at Austin.
David Todd [00:00:36] And I wanted to stress that Mr. Balboa would have all rights to use the recording as he sees fit. It is his to figure out what to do with.
David Todd [00:00:48] So I wanted to make sure that’s a good arrangement for you and that it’s okay if we proceed.
Bill Balboa [00:00:54] Absolutely, yes.
David Todd [00:00:56] Okay. Well, then let’s get started.
David Todd [00:00:59] It is Tuesday, September 20th, 2022. It is a little past 2:00 Central Time in the afternoon. And my name, as I said, is David Todd, and I am representing the Conservation History Association of Texas. I am in Austin, and this is a remote interview with Mr. Balboa. He, when I last checked, was based in the Brazoria, Texas area.
David Todd [00:01:32] Currently, Mr. Balboa is the executive director of the Matagorda Bay Foundation, previously served at the Texas A&M AgriLife Sea Grant Texas program, and before that, worked for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas Parks and Wildlife in their Coastal Fisheries Division. So he’s worked in a number of areas regarding coastal habitat and wildlife protection. Today, I think we’re going to focus on his work in tarpon research and conservation.
David Todd [00:02:06] And so I thought we might start by just talking a little bit about your early childhood memories. I understood that, that when you were a young person, you went to Port Isabel with your father. And I was curious what happened.
Bill Balboa [00:02:24] Yeah. You know, in those days that actually my experiences there were in large part, you know, loaded, they motivated me to pursue a career in fisheries. But it was in the sixties, I would say probably 1965 or 1966. And my father was finishing up a graduate school program and his major professor lived in Port Isabel, on the water, and he would go down and visit with her. And I would always tag along so that I could fish in the bay in the Lower Laguna behind her house. And she was situated in an area that was near a channel, and I would frequently go down there when I was fishing and catching hard-headed catfish primarily.
Bill Balboa [00:03:13] But, I would see tarpon rolling and you know, you’d see their silver sides coming up to the surface as they would dive down. And, you know, I’d frequently tried to snag them with my little Zebco and, you know, tried everything I could possibly to get one to hook on. But I was never successful. But it was just a, it was a really amazing thing to see. It was just, you know, sometimes to be, you know, an hour they would be there out there rolling in the channel. And it was just an amazing thing to see.
Bill Balboa [00:03:42] And I I’ve only seen it once since and that was much later in life. So, it was a, it was a really good time.
Bill Balboa [00:03:51] And I understood that your dad had a little bit more success and actually managed to hook one of these tarpon.
Bill Balboa [00:04:00] Yeah, there was a, there is a place on the real Rio Grande River back in the day that’s known as Tarpon Bend. And it’s a, it’s a, it’s a really deep bend in the Rio Grande River, as it heads down towards the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s just, I think, you know, maybe a mile or two from the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico there. And it was very well known for a large tarpon.
Bill Balboa [00:04:25] And we were fishing there once. And normally when my father took us fishing, he wasn’t fishing seriously for himself. He was just taking us. And we saw some tarpon rolling and he got out a small spinning rig and started messing around and he hooked one and he got two jumps out of it. And the river was very narrow, so it was a really spectacular show seeing this thing jump out of the water. I think he was as shocked as we were when the thing hit his lure. So that was another amazing sight to see.
Bill Balboa [00:05:00] And like I said, you know, it was interesting that, you know, there would be people there specifically targeting tarpon in that area. And I don’t believe that’s the case anymore. I just don’t think they’re there.
David Todd [00:05:14] Yeah. It sounds like the times have changed.
David Todd [00:05:22] It sounds like there was a pretty active tarpon fishery, though, back in the day. And in fact, I think you told me that you have a mounted tarpon that you’d got from the old Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas and that it might have come from the 1930s. Tell us about this specimen you have.
Bill Balboa [00:05:46] Okay. Well, you know, like I said, I’ve been, I’ve been intrigued by fish and fishing since I was very, very small. And I’ve been to the Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas. And I’ve been to other places in Port Isabel back in the day. And oftentimes they would have pictures of people holding tarpon or displaying large catches of tarpon and things that they used to call the tarpon rodeos where they would catch and kill, you know, 30, 40, 50 large tarpon at a time.
Bill Balboa [00:06:19] And at the Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas, apparently back in 1937, in the spring of 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt went to Port Aransas to fish. And there are pictures online that you can see of some of the tarpon. He caught some smaller tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico, of Port Aransas. And one of those specimens was mounted and it hung on the wall of the Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas a while. And when the Tarpon Inn changed hands, there were some older Parks and Wildlife staff there who were friends with the original owners. And the original owners donated some of the items from the restaurant to raffle off at a Parks and Wildlife staff meeting.
Bill Balboa [00:07:07] One of those items was a tarpon mount that’s about 37, 38 inches long. And at the time it was broken in the middle and it was yellow because of all the cigarette smoke from, you know, days gone by. And for some reason, that fish intrigued me. There was really no … the history behind the fish wasn’t really well known at that point during the raffle. And so, I bought some raffle tickets.
Bill Balboa [00:07:33] And I never win anything. But for some reason, I won that fish. And on the back, there’s a little wooden plaque on the back of this fish where you hang it and it says FDR 3/37. And I, I was contacted and somebody told a man in Corpus Christi, a taxidermist, that I’d won this fish in a raffle. And he contacted me and he said, “You know, that’s Franklin Roosevelt’s fish, and it would be my honor to repair the mount and restore it.” And he said he’d do it for free if he could hang it in his showroom for a few months. So I paid $6 for the raffle ticket, so I said, “Absolutely!” And so that’s kind of the story behind the fish.
Bill Balboa [00:08:17] I you know, I’ve had a few offers to take it from the Farley family down in Port Aransas. I believe it was one of their, I think it was their grandfather, great grandfather, that actually built the boat and was the guy for Franklin Roosevelt when he went fishing. But, you know, I’ve just had it, I’ve just kept it here, holding on to it. And it’s just a really neat piece of history and relates to my love of fishing. So I thought it was a really cool, a cool acquisition.
David Todd [00:08:50] That’s wonderful. And it’s so interesting, not just the mount, but all the people’s hands that it went through from, you know, FDR, to the original taxidermist, to the folks who ran the Inn, to the, you know, you, and then to the new taxidermist. It’s an amazing story. That’s great.
David Todd [00:09:15] Well, and it sounds like it’s also kind of an artifact of tarpon-related tourism and recreation that really put that part of Texas on the map, so to speak. You know, there were, even I’ve heard of stories about the Tarpon Club and Tarpon Rodeo and Deep Sea Roundup and the Farleys, these wonderful guides and the boats they built.
David Todd [00:09:44] Can you sort of reel back to that time and tell us anything you might know about tarpon in the early days?
Bill Balboa [00:09:53] Well, you know, the one thing that stands out is they were much more abundant than they are now. And I’m not sure, you know, so much has changed in terms of, you know, the geography of Texas, the hydrology, the river flows and things like that, development. But there used to be so many more tarpon and, and, you know, for me to see them in the bay as a kid, the way I saw them. You know, I spent years with Texas Parks and Wildlife, as you said, almost a quarter of a century, and I rarely spotted tarpon in the water in the wild. There were certain areas where you could see them if you went there.
Bill Balboa [00:10:35] But I used to fish the Rio Grande. I worked for Parks and Wildlife for some time in the Valley and I used to go back to Tarpon Bend looking for them, you know, and I’d go back to that area in Port Isabel and they were just not there anymore.
Bill Balboa [00:10:47] And I think, you know, the tarpon heyday was in the ’60s and maybe in the early ’70s. And for whatever reason, whether it was overfishing, or environment, or whatever, you know, I just thought the landings started to decline. And maybe it was just a change of philosophy. You know, I think many people nowadays, especially believe that, you know, it’s better to have the experience or release it alive than to take it somewhere and showed it off dead. And so, you know, maybe that was part of it, too.
Bill Balboa [00:11:24] But I think that’s the biggest thing about change is from back in the days with the Rodeo and the Deep Sea Round-up and stuff. And as a kid, you know, I was fascinated by pictures in the newspaper, going to restaurants, seeing all the pictures of the tarpon lined up and hanging, you know. And, you know, it was, it was a dream of mine to catch one, but I have not. But it was a, it was a dream at the time to catch tarpon.
David Todd [00:11:54] Yeah. And it sounds like a dream that got fulfilled a good deal, I guess, up into the early ’70s.
David Todd [00:12:02] Do you, do you know much about any of the fishing tournaments and other events that drew people down?
Bill Balboa [00:12:11] That were specifically tarpon-related, you mean?
David Todd [00:12:13] Yeah. Mmmhmm.
Bill Balboa [00:12:15] No, I know that there were some, there were some, you know, some bigger fish tournaments is all I can recall as a child. And they drew in a very special game-fishing type of crowd. You know, they weren’t, they weren’t necessarily folks out there fishing for something to put into the freezer for the family. These were, these were specialized fishermen, you know. And tarpon has always been considered, you know, a game fish, very, especially in Texas. You know, in Florida, they’re much more abundant. But here they’ve always been considered, you know, a real prize as a large game fish. And, and so, you know, I just, you know, as young as I was, I just don’t really have that much recollection of a lot of the tournaments that were down there, other than the images I’d see of the fish hanging on the, at the weight stations and stuff.
David Todd [00:13:12] Sure, sure.
David Todd [00:13:16] Well, you when you were a biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife, I understood that you got involved in some of the tasks related to tarpon. And then at one point you captured tarpon, helped capture tarpon, for the Corpus Christi Aquarium. And I was curious, you know, how you did it in the first place. They seemed very difficult to catch. And then what was the, what was the purpose?
Bill Balboa [00:13:45] Sure. So it was, this was the second time in my life where I was able to see both, it was, it initiated a period of a few years there in Galveston area when I was able to see lots of tarpon in the water. And it was, it was an interesting thing. The Corpus Christi State Aquarium wanted to capture a tarpon to put into their aquarium in Corpus, obviously.
Bill Balboa [00:14:13] And I was asked to be part of a crew on one of the sport boats. They had three or four sport boats. Most of them were part of a tarpon guide outfit named, “Tarpon Adventures”, run by Jim Lovell. And, and they wanted a Parks and Wildlife representative out there on the water in one of the boats, and I was that person. And I’d never fished for tarpon up to that point, other than my childhood attempts.
Bill Balboa [00:14:47] And what I found was, you know, there’s a fish that lives on the upper Texas coast. It’s very abundant in the Gulf off of Sabine Lake. It is called the menhaden. It’s a very oily fish. It’s a filter feeder. And it’s food for other game fish, basically predators. And, you know, the adults are about, you know, 7 to 8 inches long. They’re very silvery.
Bill Balboa [00:15:10] And apparently tarpon on the upper Texas coast. They feed on those in the summer. And so, the bait that they used (and they used natural bait) was these large menhaden. And they, they free-lined them off the back of the boat or they had balloons tied to the lines to sort of float the bait in water, and they would have two or three lines out each as they did it.
David Todd [00:15:39] And we were fortunate enough to be the boat that hooked the tarpon. And we chased the fish with the boat because tarpon don’t have a lot of hemoglobin. And if they burn up all their glycogen stores, their energy stores, they will die very quickly. And so you can’t fight them down to submission. You have to basically capture them when they’re, quote unquote, green, or still lively.
Bill Balboa [00:16:11] And so we did that. We took them up to the aquarium boat, and unfortunately, they didn’t have the storage tank ready. And so we weren’t able to send that one off to the aquarium.
Bill Balboa [00:16:22] But the process of being there with the guide and asking questions throughout the day as we waited for the fish to turn on, I learned a lot. And I learned that there was a cycle of early morning, the tarpon would come in from off-shore Gulf into 3 to 4 miles of the beach, and they would feed on large schools of menhaden.
Bill Balboa [00:16:46] And then in the afternoon, as the water warmed up, they would move back offshore.
Bill Balboa [00:16:50] And as they move, they would move in large groups, and they would cause something that looks very similar to a boat wake. And for years, collecting samples of the Gulf of Mexico off of Galveston, we would be out there on very calm days and I would see just a random, what looked, what appeared to me to be a boat wake moving across the Gulf. And I always thought to myself, “Where’s the boat?”
Bill Balboa [00:17:18] Well, it turns out, in the summer, it was tarpon rolling and moving. And once I became aware of that, we started chasing them to look at them, when we would see these boat wakes. And so we had the opportunity to try several times to catch some for some genetic studies and life history studies that were going on. But we were never successful. But we got a lot of real up-close visits with tarpon as they were, as they were rolling and moving back out into the deeper water. And we would see them between Sabine Lake and the north jetty at Galveston was where they were most predominant.
David Todd [00:18:00] Gosh. So close.
Bill Balboa [00:18:02] Yeah, it was, it was amazing.
David Todd [00:18:06] Well. So I understood that, you did manage to get some, and maybe this is incorrect, but you got some genetic information and scales from the fish that you caught that I gather died.
Bill Balboa [00:18:21] Yeah. Uh huh.
David Todd [00:18:22] So what did you learn from that?
Bill Balboa [00:18:25] You know, I the information was passed on to our life history and genetics office down in in Palacios, the Perry R. Bass marine fisheries research station. And I think what they discovered was, you know, that, I’m not sure about the genetic makeup of the stock, but I know that what they found was the scales were not a very effective way to age the fish. And they were trying to collect little bony structures of the head called “otoliths”, which they age things like spotted sea trout and red drum with these days.
Bill Balboa [00:19:03] But I honestly, I, you know, I’m not really sure, but I don’t think they collected a whole lot of information from it. I don’t think the effort was really, really successful. First, because collecting the samples was very difficult. You know, trying to get a tarpon close to the boat to pull a scale out was difficult. And we didn’t want to sacrifice fish. If somebody … one of the fish, one of the only fish that we had as a specimen that came in whole was a fish that was illegally caught off of the Galveston pier. And it was probably a six-foot tarpon. It would have been in his state record, if the man would have, if the man would have had in his possession the $100 tarpon permit. But he did not buy the permit until he landed and killed the tarpon, which is illegal. So he left the fish in a freezer at a bait camp in Galveston, and we went and picked it up.
Bill Balboa [00:20:03] So, we pulled scales and we delivered the fish whole down to Perry R. Bass. And apparently those bony structures in the head of a tarpon are very, very small. And they had, I don’t think they located them. I think they had a very difficult time trying to find them.
Bill Balboa [00:20:18] So the tarpon is still one of those, at least in Texas, you know, to my knowledge, it’s still one of those sort of mysterious fish that people are still trying to understand life history, parts of the life history, and where they go, and where they come from, where they spawn and those kinds of things.
David Todd [00:20:37] Well, so I guess it’s somewhat of a mystery, but is there any sort of outline that you could give of what is known about the life history and the ecological niche?
Bill Balboa [00:20:49] Well, so I know that I know that we have caught very small juvenile tarpon in borrow ditches that have very low water quality. Tarpon can gulp air. And so I believe, you know, I mean, in a lot of the places, you know, people will, people go trying to catch finger mullet or other bait fish to fish in salt water. And they will go to these small coastal canals that connect to bays. And oftentimes those canals, they’re shallow and the dissolved oxygen varies from, you know, very, very low to moderate, at best.
Bill Balboa [00:21:29] And it’s in those areas, in some of the backwater, fresher, bad water quality areas, that people were catching small tarpon. And by small, I would say, less than 12 inches. And so those tarpon, as larvae, move from offshore. My understanding is they spawn far offshore, and the larvae move into the Gulf and apparently seek out these freshwater, sort of marsh areas, or ditches, to mature. And they have a larvae that’s very similar to a lady fish and to bonefish, I believe. And so it’s a very odd-looking fish larvae.
Bill Balboa [00:22:15] And so we know that they, that they spend some of their juvenile time in that fresher water area. Once they grow a little bit bigger, they start to move out in the bays. Our, the Texas Parks and Wildlife sampling data that I was part of, and from what I’ve heard lately, is they’re actually, they actually seem to be catching more tarpon in the 24- to 36-inch range in gill nets, like, say, up in the upper end of bays where rivers flow into the bay.
Bill Balboa [00:22:43] From that point on, to when they get to the very large size, there’s a big knowledge gap.
Bill Balboa [00:22:51] I would like to say, though, that one of the other experiences I had in terms of trying to get tarpon was Parks and Wildlife wanted to try to spawn tarpon at one point. And we made two concerted efforts to get these tarpon. And one was at the Dow Chemical in Freeport. And Dow Chemical has circulated saltwater through their facility. And because of their processes and things like that, the water is always warm.
Bill Balboa [00:23:25] And so a lot of their canals would be filled with smaller tarpon, three, four feet long, lots of them. You know, that’s, that’s another one of those mysteries. You know, obviously, they’re coming in through the Brazos River or something and then they’re getting impinged into these and entrained into these canals and growing. Once again, we weren’t successful in getting a tarpon, but we saw a lot of them in there.
Bill Balboa [00:23:49] And what happens, sometimes, also, is during very severe freezes, when Dow will discharge some of the canal water into the Brazos River, people will call in and report cold-stunned tarpon, those 36- to maybe 40-inch tarpon right sort of at the outfall of their discharge, because the warm water comes out, the tarp on hit the cold water and they get cold-stunned and die.
Bill Balboa [00:24:14] And so the tarpon are there, they have been there for quite a while, and the, and another effort was trying to get a tarpon down in Port O’Connor. That also resulted in a mortality because they’re just, they’re a very difficult fish to handle. And this one was called off of the Port O’Connor jetties.
Bill Balboa [00:24:36] But, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to break off into other stories that were different from the question but that just popped into my head.
David Todd [00:24:44] No, this is so interesting. So I think you kind of laid out this history where they seem to spawn off-shore. Then they come in and they like these, I guess, low dissolved oxygen, maybe fresher water in these borrow ditches. And then they, I guess, they grow to 24, 36 inches. And then there’s this gap between that sort of teenage size, I suppose, and when they might be a large mature fish?
Bill Balboa [00:25:17] Yeah.
David Todd [00:25:17] Is that what you’re saying?
Bill Balboa [00:25:19] Yeah, because I, I mean, I have seen, we have caught small tarpon, you know, 36 inches long in nets, in our gillnets. I have had people bring me the very small ones that they caught in cast nets.
Bill Balboa [00:25:30] And you know, interestingly enough, you know, there’s another species that, you know, also in Florida is quite a bit more abundant than in Texas, which is the common snook. And the snook and the tarpon have sort of parallel lives, I believe, because these people who would cast net for bait and bring me these specimens would often bring me snook and tarpon at the same time, juvenile snook and juvenile tarpon.
Bill Balboa [00:25:58] And so, you know, as a fisheries biologist in Texas, you know, when you see something like that, it’s a, it’s a very exciting moment. And, you know, all of that is documented somewhere in Parks and Wildlife data.
Bill Balboa [00:26:10] There was there was a study done by a biologist in Port O’Connor. His name is Steve Moritz, I think back in the early ’80s, maybe the late ’70s, where he reported catching many juvenile tarpon in a borrow ditch around Port O’Connor. So it’s something that happens fairly, fairly commonly.
Bill Balboa [00:26:30] But yeah, so they appear to like sort of stagnant fresh water, the sort of that would be associated with marshes, you know, where the waters move slowly. As you said, they grow and then they move into the Gulf. And there’s that, there’s a large gap of, oh, where, where are they when they’re growing up?
Bill Balboa [00:26:50] Because I have, the tarpon that I’ve seen in the Gulf are, are much larger than 36 or 40 inches. And so they’re spending some time somewhere growing up. I just haven’t heard where that might be.
David Todd [00:27:08] Huh. It’s odd. So there’s a gap there that just can’t be quite pinned down. Is there suspicion that some of them move across the Gulf? Is that right? I heard that there was some story that maybe the Florida strains were seen in Texas and vice versa.
Bill Balboa [00:27:31] Yeah, I’ve heard that theory, that they move or that there’s some seasonality to the occurrence of the tarpon here in the summertime in Galveston. And the reason that they’re only here during the summer is, you know, there’s some theory that they may be moving around the Gulf Coast, right? Migrating around and then back, you know.
Bill Balboa [00:27:50] And I don’t, I don’t, you know, I don’t, I’ve been out of the business for a little while, and I’m not sure if anybody’s ever documented that. I think the last scientific publication I read was there were some, there was a theory that tarpon were spawning far off-shore, over the continental shelf. And there were a few people that were trying to dispute that theory. But that was the only large-scale study that I can recall that was done regarding trying to locate tarpon spawning grounds.
Bill Balboa [00:28:18] But I also, I agree, I have heard the theory that, that they could migrate back and forth across the Gulf.
Bill Balboa [00:28:25] I mean, people thought that about snapper though at some point. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think they believe there’s an Eastern and a Western population. So, you know, there’s a lot more snapper caught than there are tarpon, so you can do the genetics much easier, much more easily. And so I think, you know, if we were able to get those samples from tarpon, well, we might actually be able to do something like that, if it hasn’t already been done. But yeah, I’ve heard the theory.
David Todd [00:28:51] Okay. Well, so that helps us to understand a little bit more about the life history of the fish. What do you think the niche is, the ecological role, that tarpon might fill?
Bill Balboa [00:29:06] That’s a really hard question. You know, it’s just, it’s just an apex predator, you know? And I know. You know, down in Mexico. You know, my dad was from Mexico. We talked to people and, you know, some people would claim to have eaten the fish back in the day when they were, when there were a lot of them. Other ones just used them for fertilizer, you know, which was very odd to me for such a magnificent fish.
Bill Balboa [00:29:34] But I think tarpon, they’re an apex predator, you know, and that’s kind of the niche they fill out there in the ecosystem.
Bill Balboa [00:29:46] I say it’s a difficult question, because, to me, there’s many questions out there that are, that are sort of, at least to me, still unanswerable, mysterious sort of situations, you know, that either I haven’t read about or I have yet to fathom myself. So.
David Todd [00:30:04] Well, I think you mentioned that, you know, these fish were caught and used for fertilizer in Mexico and I guess eaten as well and then used for, you know, as game fish, trophy fish. I understand that the fish were for some reason declining, though. And, you know, maybe those are some of the factors, but maybe there are others. What do you think the reasons might have been behind the declines that we’re seeing since the heyday that you mentioned in the ’60s and ’70s?
Bill Balboa [00:30:52] Well, there’s a lot of possible, possible reasons. Like I mentioned before, determining causality out there for many other organisms that live in the bay, say, take flounder, for instance, which is a very common species. It’s very difficult to put a finger on exactly what it is that’s causing the decline and how can we reverse it.
Bill Balboa [00:31:15] You know, for tarpon, I know a lot of people have looked at reduced fresh water flows to the bays. You know at one point, the Rio Grande River stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, you know. And so, you’ve lost tarpon habitat there, you know, because obviously at some point they used the Rio Grande River so much that, you know, the place inherited a name because they were there in such abundance.
Bill Balboa [00:31:42] I think maybe catch and kill tactics since they’re so large when they spawn and that may have some effect on the spawning population in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bill Balboa [00:31:56] You know, it’s possible that water quality issues and development along the Texas coast have limited their nursery habitat as well, habitat as well.
Bill Balboa [00:32:08] But once again, you know, I don’t, I don’t know that anyone has been able to say this is why the tarpon are declining, in much of the same way, sort of with flounder.
Bill Balboa [00:32:18] You know, one of the things that may be attributed to seeing more tarpon in our Parks and Wildlife nets lately is, up until recently, we hadn’t had any real killing freezes since ’89-’90. And then we had the week-long freeze up here when, a couple of years ago, you know. So that was the first really big freeze.
Bill Balboa [00:32:39] And for years before that, before ’89-’90, the Texas coast experienced freeze somewhere every 7 to 10 or 11 years, I think. And those freezes would push tropical fishes or fishes that were, that preferred warmer water temperatures, it would keep their populations south. And so, you know, as we get to the end of a period of, between freezes, you’d start to see snook, you’d start to see more tarpon, and then it would go back.
Bill Balboa [00:33:09] So, it’s possible that, you know, as the waters warm, you know, the tarpon may be more successful.
Bill Balboa [00:33:18] But there’s a lot of factors. You know, there’s, there’s so many, many factors that are, that can be attributed to the decline of the fishery. You know, I don’t think it’s any one particular reason. I think it’s many in concert that have resulted in that decline.
David Todd [00:33:41] Well, you know, before we started recording today, you had some really interesting comments about just how complex the coastal environment is, and how difficult it is to sort of see some kind of mechanistic relationship between a single cause and a definite result. And can you talk a little bit about that? Just, you know, as somebody who has thought about the coast, thought about the fishery a lot, and maybe has come to see it as kind of an unknowable place and environment.
Bill Balboa [00:34:20] Sure. You know, one of the things that I’ve learned is that, after my time, after my time with Parks and Wildlife and everything, is there’s a there’s a lot we don’t know. And that that was very evident during water planning processes in the late ’90s when we had some of the, the best brains in Texas working on trying to understand the relationship between freshwater and bay and estuarine fisheries productivity.
Bill Balboa [00:34:51] And while intuitively we know that’s the case, because we can see it displayed in front of us. We see large-scale oyster production and shrimping, you know, from, say, Aransas Bay to the north, where they experience freshwater inflows. Down south, there’s no real oyster population to harvest in the lower Laguna upper lagoons where it’s very salty. You know, up North, there’s also the menhaden, which is the fish I mentioned that tarpon like to eat. They’re harvested for oil and as fertilizer because there’s so many of them, a tremendous abundance of those; white shrimp, blue crabs all along the upper coast. And we know that freshwater contributes to productivity.
Bill Balboa [00:35:35] But what we started looking at, trying to identify the relationship, to try to find the recipe for how much freshwater and how much salt water equals a good year, we couldn’t find that match.
Bill Balboa [00:35:48] And so there’s many answers out there, there’s many things out there, that we can’t answer. You know, as much as we’ve studied, and as much as we know, and as many questions we have answered, there’s a lot of things that we can answer.
Bill Balboa [00:35:59] And I think also the thing to consider also is, as time changes, you know, and conditions in the world change, you know, there’s a lot of things that just can’t be reversed and repaired. So I think, you know, we’re in for looking at a lot of changes because we really don’t understand what’s going to drive those changes yet. And we’re just going to have to sit back and sort of watch them happen because these are very chaotic systems.
Bill Balboa [00:36:27] And when you look at a bay, it deals with drought some years. It deals with floods. So the salinities can go from very high to very low in the course of a day. There are hurricanes. You know, it’s very, very, very chaotic systems, and yet they’re very productive. And so what causes that, I think, in large part is still a mystery to many marine biologists.
Bill Balboa [00:36:53] So, I don’t know. Did I capture that well enough?
David Todd [00:36:57] Yeah. There’s I love that there’s this mystery to it. It’s a little disturbing that, you know, you point out that some of these changes may be irreversible. And you, not only do you not understand it, but you can’t really restore it. Is that where you’re going with that?
Bill Balboa [00:37:23] Yeah, I am. And well, you know, for instance, say, in Matagorda Bay, you know, the majority of our fresh water historically came down the Colorado River into the bay. The river, because it was flooding areas upstream back in the early 1900s, was channeled out into the Gulf of Mexico. So the bay lost flow. And then it was diverted back in, in the late ’90s, back into the bay to try to increase productivity, you know. And at the same time Austin started this explosive growth and the need for water in Austin grew and grew, so that the flows down to the bay were reduced.
Bill Balboa [00:38:09] And a lot of people have looked at data and tried to look at, you know, what levels of flow do we need here? You know, what is happening in Matagorda Bay? But because of all the changes, because of everything that has happened, there is no way to sort of establish a baseline and say, “This is what it once was, and this is where we are now.”
Bill Balboa [00:38:34] So the best that we can do now, I think, is look at what we have now and move forward in trying to sustain, you know, and protect critical areas so that we can maintain the Texas coast.
Bill Balboa [00:38:48] You know, an example of some of the change that’s very bizarre, is there used to be a type of jellyfish on the Texas coast called, “the cabbagehead”. And it occurred in Matagorda Bay in tremendous abundance. And it’s basically gone now. And, you know, people don’t really take much note of it because it’s not a charismatic species, it’s not a giant silver fish that people pursue. But there’s a reason why these jellyfish are going away. You know, and, you know, from my perspective, you know, as a biologist and, you know, a lover of all things natural, particularly in Texas, I think it’s really important that we try to understand what are these changes that are happening, what’s driving them, and look a little bit more closer to try to find some of those answers, because all these changes are important, whether it occurs with tarpon or with, you know, the lowly jellyfish, you know, because all of them are indicators of something.
Bill Balboa [00:39:47] And so, yeah, to answer your question directly, there is no going back. You know, what has been lost has been lost more than likely. And what we have to do now is sustain what we have, protect critical areas. And I think what’s most important is everybody in Texas needs to realize we’re all connected, primarily by rivers and water, and it’s something, it’s a resource we have to share to maintain not only livelihoods, but the green places in Texas so that we can, we can all leave the city and go explore, you know, in, in some healthy environs. So anyway, that’s my soapbox.
David Todd [00:40:25] No, this is, this is very, very helpful. Thank you.
David Todd [00:40:32] So, I think you talked about trying to sustain some of these special places that do still seem vital and to keep those connections alive.
David Todd [00:40:45] What are some of the promising, as you see them, efforts to restore the tarpon, either through just understanding more about it, or actually trying to intervene in ways to bring it back?
Bill Balboa [00:41:01] Well, you know, I know a lot of people, you know, their first reaction is spawn them and put them in the water. Right? To restore them. I don’t, I don’t think that’s going. I don’t think that’s the answer. You know, I don’t know. I know that there’s been, there’s been people who have tried to spawn them. I think Parks and Wildlife tried spawning tarpon at one point at Sea Center Texas. They had some tarpon in some of their large circular tanks and they were trying to figure out the secret on what makes a tarpon spawn. And I don’t think they were successful.
Bill Balboa [00:41:40] But, because once again, there’s just too many variables. You know, if the tarpon does spawn offshore, you know, is it in deep water? Is it in mid-water column somewhere, way out in the water? And what is the water pressure? What is the light? What is the temperature at the time of spawning, la, la, la? Because all of that has a factor.
Bill Balboa [00:41:59] I think if we’re going to do something about tarpon, I think, you know, Parks and Wildlife is doing really well by severely restricting the take of those fish. I think that’s, I think that’s key.
Bill Balboa [00:42:10] And I think we also need to consider, once again, you know, maintaining, you know, some level of freshwater down to these areas, you know, followed up with or actually preceded by some really, really in-depth study of what those fish need.
Bill Balboa [00:42:28] You know, I think at one point, you know, there was a lot of tourism, an economy around tarpon. I don’t know that I see that so much anymore. It almost seems like, you know, as a game fish, you know, people sort of talk about it, you know, as a thing in the past, you know, and there’s only a handful of folks, at least in my circle, that, you know, that would actually go out and pursue a tarpon now. You know, I think people feel like there’s just not that many of them.
Bill Balboa [00:43:00] So I think, you know, another, another thing that needs to happen is people need to, there needs to be more interest in protecting and preserving the species so that the funding and all the resources are made available to get a better understanding and identify areas that are critical in their life history.
David Todd [00:43:25] You know, it seems like a kind of perverse thing that as the fish has gotten rarer, there are fewer people fishing for it, so there’s maybe less interest in restoring it so that it can again be a popular game fish. But, you know, the fish in that situation probably needs more help and needs more research and intervention.
Bill Balboa [00:43:49] In Texas in particular … You know, I believe Florida has a, I think the tarpon in Florida are doing pretty well. But I think, you know, you know, this is just speculation on my part, but they have the Everglades, you know. And if you want to talk about a nursery area that has the water quality in a marsh that, you know, I would think that those little those juvenile tarpon would like, it’s the Everglades. You know, if you’ve ever been back up in there, that water is very dark brown, you know, tannic water, with very low oxygen, you know, and that seems to be what they like. And so I think that’s why in Florida, some of those species that like that kind of habitat are doing so much better.
Bill Balboa [00:44:30] But yeah, it is a, it’s kind of a sad tale to see, you know, not going to boat out there anymore. We’re not going to catch them. And I mean, you know, it’s, it’s just a, it’s a progression of black and white photos that you see of people landing giant grouper on the Texas coast, at jetties and things. And those are no longer there either.
Bill Balboa [00:44:54] So, you know, over time, change has happened and, you know, people’s habits have changed along with them.
David Todd [00:45:03] Mm hmm.
David Todd [00:45:07] You know, you mentioned a little bit about Texas Parks and Wildlife and some of their efforts, and the Corpus Christi Aquarium. And I was curious if any other organizations come to mind that have been working on tarpon. I think there’s the Tarpon Tomorrow group that was formed about 20 years ago. I don’t know how active it is now, but then I guess, CCA. Are there any that that seem to be doing some promising work on the tarpon?
Bill Balboa [00:45:40] Well, I think CCA, you know, CCA has always been, you know, really, really important in terms of, you know, the conservation of any fish species, especially game fish like that. So, yeah, I think, you know, they, they provide funding, they provide information and education and stuff for that.
Bill Balboa [00:46:04] And I don’t know, I think, you know, I mean, I knew someone in Tarpon Tomorrow, Art Morris, who was a Parks and Wildlife biologist from down in the Upper Laguna Madre area. But I don’t know that they are very active anymore. You know, I just, I don’t know. And I’m not sure what they actually, I’m not sure, I know they were trying to raise awareness and, you know, try to collaborate to get more money into academia to do research. But I’m not sure how successful they were at doing that.
Bill Balboa [00:46:45] I know that organizations like the Harte Research Institute, they’ve done a lot of studies on, on a variety of game fish. I don’t know if they’ve, they’ve done tarpon yet, but they would definitely be a candidate for someone to do that.
David Todd [00:47:06] Well, considering where things have been and where things are now, what do you foresee for the tarpon in the coming years?
Bill Balboa [00:47:16] Well, that’s another hard question. You know, if we can, we can maintain things sort of as they are now, and maintain our levels of productivity in terms of like their forage fish, the menhaden and stuff off of Galveston and stuff, you know, I feel pretty confident that today, you know, that I could I could possibly go out, launch a boat at Galveston and go out the Bolivar jetties, turn to the left in the early summer and over a period of a few days, maybe weeks, find the tarpon, the schools of tarpon that were coming in and maybe catch one. I think, I think if we can, if we can sustain those things that I just previously mentioned, that I think we’ll be able to maintain the tarpon population, at least at its current levels.
Bill Balboa [00:48:08] You know, once again, you know, it is a very mysterious fish and there isn’t a whole lot, you know, that I’m aware of, that’s known about it. And so, you know, I would hope that we’d be able to sustain at least the populations that we have now for the next couple of decades, because for anyone who fishes, and who is a really diehard fishermen who or who have read, you know, Hemingway or Zane Gray or any of those other folks in there, their fishing experiences, you know, for tarpon on fly, or with the Heddon Lucky 13, that’s a fish that you really have to see in the wild to really appreciate it. I think that would be a tremendous loss to our population to lose those fish.
Bill Balboa [00:48:59] So hopefully, hopefully in 20 years they’ll still be around.
Bill Balboa [00:49:03] I know that’s not the answer that, probably not the answer you were looking for, but that’s the best I can do.
David Todd [00:49:10] Oh, this is helpful. And I got to think that a fish with as much sort of acrobatic ability is one that a lot of people would want to see back, and having those stories from Hemingway or Zane Gray are so, you know, so evocative and even the, you know, that mounted fish that you’ve got from the ’30s, I think it just is something a lot of people would want to see back again, swimming in the sea.
David Todd [00:49:44] Was there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Bill Balboa [00:49:50] No, I think we’ve pretty much covered it. I think one of the other things that I think is really important, though, as far as conserving anything out there on the coast, is, you know, we have to get, you know, people out there to actually see these things, you know, get them out of the house and onto the water.
Bill Balboa [00:50:12] You know, that was me as a child. You know, if I would have been stuck inside all the time, I never would have been able to experience that and get excited. But, you know, it’s that excitement that carries you on, you know, and motivates you to do these things into the future. And that’s one of the things that I think is really, really critical that we do, to introduce youth into these kinds of things so that they can carry the banner forward, you know, as those as us old timers fall away. Right? You know, because somebody’s going to have to carry the banner. And we need to make sure that we’re raising those kinds of youth, you know, that will jump up or down and scream when they see a tarpon jump. And I think that that’s real critical as well. So that’s all.
David Todd [00:51:01] Okay. No, I can see the excitement and just got to put the kids with the tarpon.
Bill Balboa [00:51:10] Or anything outside, right?
David Todd [00:51:12] Anything? Yes. Yes. Get them out on the water. I, I totally hear you.
David Todd [00:51:17] Well, Bill, as always, it is so great to talk to you. And thank you for sharing your insights about the tarpon today and taking a little time to do that.
Bill Balboa [00:51:27] Not a problem. Not a problem.
David Todd [00:51:29] All right. Well, you have a good day. Hope we see each other soon.
Bill Balboa [00:51:33] All right. Take care. Thank you so much.
David Todd [00:51:34] All right. Bye, Bill.