Marine Resources

By: Richard L. Benefield

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: June 20, 2020

The Texas coast stretches nearly 370 miles along the Gulf of Mexico. It runs east and west only a short distance and then curves southwestward and south, so that the southern tip of Texas is on the same latitude as Miami, Florida. Much of the mainland is separated from the Gulf by a chain of barrier islands. Behind these islands lie bays and lagoons. A series of passes connects the bays with the Gulf, including Sabine Pass on the Sabine estuary, Bolivar Roads, San Luis Pass and Rollover Pass on the Galveston estuary, Cavallo Pass and the Matagorda Ship Channel on the Matagorda estuary and Espíritu Santo Bay, Cedar Bayou Pass on Mesquite Bay and the San Antonio estuary, Aransas Pass on the Aransas and Corpus Christi estuaries, Port Mansfield Channel on the middle Laguna Madre, and Brazos Santiago Pass on the lower end of the Laguna Madre (see GULF INTRACOASTAL WATERWAY). The estuarine waters of Texas encompass about 4,177 square miles. The perimeter shoreline, including beaches, is nearly 2,400 miles long, 2,000 miles of which are bayshore. Many of these areas are accessible to the public by boat or car. The barrier islands along the Gulf shore are reached by causeways or ferrys. Estuaries in Texas are generally either drowned river mouths or bar-formed lagunes. Sabine Lake and Galveston, Trinity, Matagorda, and Corpus Christi bays are examples of drowned river mouths. Examples of bar-formed lagoons include East and West Galveston bays, East Matagorda and eastern Matagorda bays, Aransas and Redfish bays, and the Laguna Madre. The Brazos, San Bernard, and Rio Grande flow directly into the Gulf, whereas the Sabine, Trinity, Colorado, Lavaca, Guadalupe, Aransas and Nueces Rivers flow into bays. Estuarine waters vary in salinity from low (0–10 parts salt per thousand) to moderate (10–20 ppt) in Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay to extremely high (more than 30 ppt) in the Laguna Madre. Bays typically have salinity gradients ranging from fresh water at river mouths to higher salinities near openings to the Gulf. Bays are usually shallow, with natural depths ranging from six to twelve feet, and most have manmade channels ranging in depth from twelve to forty-five feet.

For the many marine species that inhabit these areas, estuaries are nursery grounds. People often think that this means marine organisms move into the bays to lay eggs. Some species, such as the spotted seatrout, do spawn within bays, where the eggs hatch and the young grow to adulthood. However, this is not the case for most species. Typically, most recreational and commercial marine species spawn in the more saline Gulf waters, and their larval stages enter the bays, where they reside in shallow, often vegetated areas. In these areas young organisms find abundant food and cover from predators. The life history of the brown shrimp is a common example of this pattern. Larval shrimp enter the bays during late February and early March and April, reside in nursery areas, grow rapidly, move out into adjacent bay areas as they become larger, and by May or early June migrate to the Gulf, where they reach maturity and resume the reproduction cycle. During their time in the estuary, young marine organisms meet many obstacles to survival. Fish, birds, and man prey upon them in the bays and Gulf, thereby severely reducing their numbers. However, those species that serve as food for other species generally have high reproductive capacities that enable them to maintain a balance in their population. Other threats to marine species include destruction of habitat, overfishing, pollution, and natural disasters such as the catastrophic freezes that occurred in 1983 and 1989. Because of these additional pressures on survival, scientific studies are conducted to gather information about species populations in order to make management recommendations to preserve marine resources. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is mandated to study and manage fishery resources in state estuarine and Gulf waters out to nine nautical miles. Seven field stations and one research lab are strategically located near different estuarine systems from Port Arthur to Brownsville. They monitor marine species with sampling gear designed to catch all important fish and crustacean species. Recreational and commercial fishermen are interviewed in order to monitor what resources are being taken from each bay. These data provide information on abundance of species and fishing pressure on important marine species exerted by recreational and commercial fishermen. Based upon TPWD sampling data, many species are afforded protection from overharvest through size, bag, and possession limits that ensure long-term viability of finfish and shellfish resources. Red drum is probably the best example of successful fishery management in Texas marine waters. Texas began an aggressive management approach to red drum in the mid-seventies, when rapidly increasing commercial landings and TPWD resource data indicated that coastal red drum stocks were in trouble. In 1981 red drum were designated gamefish, their sale in Texas was prohibited, and severe restrictions were placed on recreational fishermen as well. This aggressive management, in addition to stocking, has been instrumental in rebuilding populations.

Enhancement, or stocking, is an integral part of coastal fisheries management. The three Texas marine fish hatcheries that provide fingerlings for stocking are located at Corpus Christi, Palacios, and Lake Jackson. At them, marine fish such as red drum and spotted seatrout are spawned, and the resulting offspring are released into Texas bays to supplement natural reproduction. Over 1.1 billion red drum fry, 132 million red drum fingerlings, 52 million spotted seatrout fry, and 3 million spotted seatrout fingerlings were released into estuarine waters between 1983 and 1993.

Other state agencies managing state resources include the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (pollution), the General Land Office (land management), and the Texas Department of Health (seafood safety). Academic institutions conducting marine research include the University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas, Texas A&M University at Galveston, Kingsville, and Corpus Christi, and the Texas A&M Sea Grant program. Each of these agencies and institutions plays an important role in understanding and managing estuarine resources of Texas.

Recreational and commercial fishermen seek saltwater finfish in Texas bays and in the adjacent Gulf of Mexico for recreation, food, bait, fish meal, and oil. Over 12 million pounds of finfish valued at more than $700 million dockside is landed annually by sport and commercial finfishermen. This translates to an economic impact to the state of more than $2 billion. In 1993 there were more than 831,000 saltwater anglers in Texas. They fish from piers, shallow wade-fishing areas, private boats, and charter boats. They primarily seek spotted seatrout, red drum, southern flounder, black drum, sand seatrout, and Atlantic croaker while fishing in Texas bays. In Gulf waters, spotted seatrout, red drum, red snapper, cobia (ling), king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, tarpon and billfish are the species most often sought by sport fishermen (see GAME ANIMALS, BIRDS, and FISHES).

The shrimp fishery is the state's most important commercial fishery. Brown shrimp, white shrimp, and pink shrimp are the primary species sought in bays and the Gulf. During 1993, harvest of these shrimp totaled 74 million pounds, valued at $131 million. Brown shrimp predominate in both pounds landed (55 to 75 percent of total landings) and value (65 to 80 percent of total value) of the annual catch. The total economic impact of shrimp landings in the marketing system is estimated to be near $500 million. Shrimp not only provide food for man, but also bait used by recreational anglers (see SHRIMPING INDUSTRY). This fishery has often been a topic of controversy between regulators and industry. State management strategies to manage the industry are often opposed by shrimpers. TPWD scientists have become concerned about the health of the inshore shrimp resource. Shrimp catches within bays have been increasing, while the shrimp landed are getting progressively smaller-a symptom of overfishing. This trend, if continued, could eventually affect the populations of spawning shrimp and therefore the entire resource. As a result, a limited-entry plan was initiated. Shrimpers from each bay system elected representatives to serve on a committee that would develop a plan with the help of TPWD to reduce fishing pressure on shrimp within the bays. After a period of about eighteen months, the Texas legislature sponsored and approved a limited-entry document. Given time, the limited-entry plan, combined with traditional management measures, should reduce fishing pressure on the resource and eventually provide individual shrimpers a larger share of the resource. This process may serve as a model for resolving future problems between regulators and harvesters of our natural resources.

Other commercial and recreational species of marine organisms that are important to the Texas economy and Texans in general are blue crabs and oysters. In 1993 commercial blue crab landings totaled 3.9 million pounds valued at $8.2 million. Recreational pursuits of this crab are intense, although no complete documentation of recreational catch and value is available. Those anglers pursuing blue crabs range from small children to senior citizens. Most blue crabs are caught in those bays having low to moderate salinities. The eastern oyster is also an important species to the commercial fishery. The 1993 commercial landings were 4.1 million pounds valued at $2.6 million. Most oysters are harvested from the Galveston Bay system, where lower salinities, favored by oysters, are common. Some recreational oystering occurs along the coast from Galveston to Aransas bays. During the early twentieth century there was some mudshell production in Texas. Mudshell, consisting of oyster shell, was recovered from reefs buried under many feet of mud and used for building roads and in the manufacture of shell-based cement. In the later part of the twentieth century mudshell was no longer produced in Texas. Although many Texas oysters and blue crabs are marketed in-state, eastern markets also buy Texas seafood. Another significant commercial fishery is that of the Gulf menhaden. The fishing is done by vessels using purse seines in shallow waters of the upper coast between Sabine Pass and Galveston. Landings in 1993 totaled 51.9 million pounds valued at $2.5 million.

Geological formations that produce oil and gas on the Coastal Plain continue far out under the waters of the Gulf. These areas have been continually surveyed by exploration companies. Drilling rights in 1950 were leased from the state, with the income going into the Available School Fund. Between 1922 and 1991 the state earned roughly $1.5 billion from offshore leases in the Tidelands. Despite a disappointing record of offshore oil and gas production from areas along the Texas coast in the 1940s and 1950s, companies continued to conduct exploratory drilling throughout the 1960s. In 1966, sixty-nine offshore wells were completed in Texas, though only one produced oil and one gas. In the 1970s, wells brought in by Pennzoil and Union Oil of Texas encouraged oil companies to continue their efforts. Reverses within the oil industry during the 1980s also meant a decline in offshore projects, but interest in the area's potential remained. In 1994, Jebco Seismic, Incorporated, and Petroleum Geo-Services contracted with various oil companies to conduct the first 3-D seismic survey within Texas coastal waters in search of gas and oil deposits (see OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY).

An increasing number of vacationers frequent the Texas coast. They are interested in fishing, swimming, boating, camping, and waterfowl hunting. During the summer many vacationers seek fishing opportunities in the bays and Gulf of Mexico. Most towns that attract these visitors offer bay and offshore fishing charters, free and pay fishing piers, and many areas of free fishing access. The summer months offer top fishing opportunities for many fish species, both in the bay and gulf. Fall fishing is particularly good during the red drum, Atlantic croaker and southern flounder spawning runs. These fish move through or congregate near the passes in large numbers, and opportunities for good catches are optimum during this period. Offshore fishing is good in winter, when catches of large red snapper can be excellent. The upper Laguna Madre and Baffin Bay areas are renowned for large spotted seatrout and abundant red drum. Fishermen travel great distances just for an opportunity to fish for a trophy sized (more than ten pounds) spotted seatrout.

The TPWD also manages the Texas Artificial Reef Program in the Gulf of Mexico. During the early 1960s, car bodies and concrete construction pipes were used to build reefs along the coast. In 1976 the Texas Coastal and Marine Council coordinated the sinking of twelve Liberty Ships-three each off Freeport, Matagorda Channel, Port Aransas, and Port Mansfield. The current program involves working with petroleum companies that donate production platforms located in once productive areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Platforms are made available to the TPWD for moving to a reef location or sinking on site. Companies often contribute funds to the TPWD that are saved by making reefs with platforms rather than taking them ashore for salvaging at shipyards. Since 1990, thirty-six platforms or other structures have been converted to artificial reefs and nineteen different companies have donated $3.1 million to the TPWD for marking existing sites and developing new reef sites. These reefs have been a bonanza for offshore fishermen and SCUBA diving enthusiasts due to the abundance of marine life attracted to them.

Another popular recreational pursuit is that of waterfowl hunting in Texas marshes and open bay areas along the coast. About 50 percent of the geese, ducks, and coots using the United States Central Flyway spend the winter in Texas. The state waterfowl census in 1994 placed the number of wintering birds along the Texas coast at about 6.3 million. There were 67,000 waterfowl hunters statewide. In 1991, waterfowl hunters in Texas contributed about $48.9 million in retail sales to the Texas economy.

Migratory and nonmigratory birds are becoming an integral part of the Texas recreational activity opportunities. Members of the American Birding Association listed Texas as the most popular destination for birding tours in the early 1990s. In 1992 birdwatchers contributed $4.6 million along the upper Texas coast. Primary bird migrations through Texas occur during the spring and fall. Annual bird counts are conducted during winter, and the coastal area near Freeport is traditionally near the top in reporting the most numbers of species. In Southeast Texas near Houston, a 1992 study at High Island bird sanctuary estimated that 6,000 birdwatchers spent about $1.2 million to see the wide variety of bird species. Birdwatching is no longer an incidental recreational activity; it has taken its place with fishing, hunting, and camping as a major outdoor recreational pursuit (see BIRDS).

Development of coastal resort and recreational areas advanced during the 1950s and 1960s, particularly on Padre Island. In 1963 an eighty-mile section of the island was designated as Padre Island National Seashore and placed under jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which planned to preserve the seashore in its natural state and to make it more accessible to visitors. It was officially dedicated as a national seashore in April 1968. Commercial facilities for tourists have been expanded, especially in the Corpus Christi and Port Isabel areas. In 1991, Nueces County reported $386 million in tourist expenditures. Cameron County tourist trade employed close to 7,000 people with a payroll of $93 million and an economic impact of $328 million. State parks are located on the coast from near Sabine Pass to near Port Aransas. Sea Rim State Park, opened in 1977 near Sabine Pass, includes 15,094 acres of beachfront and marshlands for public use. Swimming, camping, birding, fishing, and hunting are available at this facility. Galveston Island State Park was opened in 1975 with 1,950 acres. This popular site offers both beachfront and bayfront access areas for swimming, camping, fishing, and birding. Goose Island State Park near Rockport has 314 acres for camping, bay fishing, and birding. Mustang Island State Park offers beach and bay frontage for swimming, camping, and fishing. Each of these parks contributes to the Texas economy throughout the year. Tourist dollars in Galveston amounted to just over $300 million during 1991. Tourists spent approximately $350 million in the ten remaining coastal counties (Jefferson, Chambers, Brazoria, Matagorda, Calhoun, San Patricio, Kleberg, Willacy, Refugio, and Kenedy). Statewide, Texas parks received 25 million visitors in 1993, up 40 percent since 1983. Tourism, the state's third-largest industry, pumped about $23 billion into the economy in 1993.

Coastal Fisheries Plan, 1994–95 (Austin: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Coastal Fisheries Division, 1995). Richard A. Diener, Cooperative Gulf of Mexico Estuarine Inventory and Study-Texas: Area Description (NOAA Technical Report NMFS CIRC-393, Seattle, 1975). Lance Robinson et al., Trends in Texas Commercial Fishery Landings, 1972–1993 (Austin: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Coastal Fisheries Division, 1994). The Texas Shrimp Fishery: A Report to the Governor and the 74th Legislature (Austin: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Coastal Fisheries Division, 1995).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Richard L. Benefield, “Marine Resources,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 24, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 20, 2020