Business

How “18 Test Tubes” back in the 1970s helped lead to oyster cultivation along the Texas Gulf Coast

The spillway at the Barney M. Davis Reservoir as seen from Oso Bay in September, 2020 (Photo: Matt Pierce/Getty Images)

There has been plenty of talk about aquaculture and oyster harvesting in Texas and the positive impact that it will likely have on both the state and regional economy. The landmark plan lays the groundwork for Texas and the Coastal Bend to create a staple market for “Texas Oysters” sent around the world. But Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend have long been a critical point of research in aquatic development and commerce. 

According to data from the Texas Water Development Board, the Barney M Davis Cooling Reservoir in the Flour Bluff area is technically located about 14 miles southeast of the city center of Corpus Christi. They describe the reservoir as being “an off channel reservoir,” where water is pumped from Laguna Madre. The Barney M. Davis Reservoir is owned by Central Power And Light Company for cooling to its power generation units. Records show that active construction of the dam ended in 1973. Composed of soil cement, built in ring levee style, the total length of the dam is 33,913 feet and has a maximum height of 26 feet. The state says that the reservoir has an estimated capacity of 6,600 acre feet encompassing a surface area of 1,099 acres at the conservation pool elevation of 26 feet above mean sea level.

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But back in 1975 there was the story of “18 Test Tubes,” that were maintained by Dr. Fred Conte and his team from Texas A&I University (now known as Texas A&M-Corpus Christi). Dr. Conte and his team focused on experimentation in shrimp stocking densities, different shrimp species, different feeds and fertilizers, and other pond management techniques that are now commonly used in commercial shrimp farming today. 

They were not actually “test tubes,” but rather mariculture ponds that Dr. Conte simply called his “test tubes,” that he used for his research. In August of 1975, Dr. Conte and his researchers spawned their first shrimp from the ponds. 

Water from the Barney M. Davis Reservoir made its journey to the ponds by pump or by gravity flow. In his research, Dr. Conte noticed that except for temperature, water leaving the lake to enter the ponds is essentially the same as water from Laguna Madre, the source of the plant’s cooling water. A filtration system, which removed organisms from the water before it reached the plant, was an added benefit to the mariculture operation because it removed grass and other foreign matter before it reached the mariculture ponds where Dr. Conte and his team of researchers were performing their work. 

It was noted heavily in their research that the 1974 shrimp harvest of 1500 pounds per acre with six- inch shrimp weighing 9/10 of an ounce indicated dramatic progress, and confirmed to the team that shrimp mariculture would eventually become a new industry. 

These pioneers of progress recognized the importance of their work. In a 1975 report by the Texas Water Resources Institute Dr. Jack C. Parker said that “Considering that the South Texas coast offers some of the most ideal sites for shrimp mariculture in the United States, the development of this new industry would have a significant impact on the coastal economy and make a substantial contribution to United States’ capabilities for supplying shrimp.” 

Their work laid the groundwork for new theories and new technology that has led to an entire industry now focused on Texas Oysters. Much of it goes back to the “18 test tubes,” fostered by Dr. Fred Conte and his team over 45 years ago. 

Matt Pierce filed this story from Corpus Christi, Texas. He’d like to thank Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi for their assistance in research for this piece. Photography Credits Matt Pierce/Getty Images/iStock Photo.

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