GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — The Texas oyster industry is in the middle of a turf war. What’s at stake is one company’s claim to some 23,000 acres of land at the bottom of Galveston Bay.
Oysterman Tracy Woody knew his company’s effort to purchase the exclusive right to dredge what are now mostly public oyster reefs would create an upheaval, so he named it accordingly.
Woody said STORM, or Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, is the effort’s mission, but also a description of what it was bound to create.
The move was as controversial as he expected. Woody and his father-in-law, Ben Nelson, of Jeri’s Seafood in Smith’s Point, were part of a family that has been fishing the bay since the 1920s. They bought the lease to the 23,000 acres of submerged land last April from the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District and expected the right to control all oyster harvests in a narrow strip of the bay stretching from Smith’s Point to San Leon.
The area, however, has been populated for decades by public reefs and private leases controlled and monitored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
According to department figures, if the navigation district’s claim to the area is valid it would take control of more than 452 acres of currently private oyster beds held by seven of Woody’s competitors and more than 3,900 acres of public oyster reef under its supervision.
With the rights to the bay at stake, Woody’s competitors say STORM is nothing more than an underwater land grab of a living resource. They say the lease would threaten the lifeblood of the local oyster industry in the bay, which is nearly the last place where wild oysters are still dredged.
Michael Ivic, a member of the Croatian-American family that owns Misho’s Oyster Company, one of the largest producers of oysters in the bay, stands to lose the rights to some 160 acres of reef under STORM.
Since Miisho’s began cultivating oyster beds in the 1970s, Ivic says those acres have become some of the company’s most productive.
“I spend 25 years building the reefs, putting in new shells, making it my life’s business,” Ivic said. “And now all of a sudden this is going to be taken from me and given to the Nelson family? It’s unethical.”
Ivic said that while the oyster industry has always been competitive, with the companies all vying for the same reefs to hold onto customers, this action has changed the business.
“We were competitors before, but we were like among family also,” Ivic said. “We tried to dance without stepping on toes. With this, that is over.”
The validity of the lease is still in question, however, so Misho and other leaseholders have continued to harvest from waters STORM claims, despite receiving cease and desist letters.
The state General Land Office and the Parks and Wildlife Department have issued opinions arguing that the Navigation District is limited to controlling navigation rights for the submerged land it leased to STORM, but doesn’t have the authority to control the living reefs submerged in the water.
The disagreement has created an impasse for the 23,000 underwater acres. In March, House Bill 3335 was filed by state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D- Beaumont, seeking to validate STORM’s claim, but industry officials predict an impending court battle will be the only way to resolve the issue.
In the face of opposition, Woody argues the goal of STORM extends beyond a land grab. It is, he said, instead a legal purchase of land with the mission of creating a more sustainable model to save the oyster industry. He said something bold had to be done to protect the resource.
Woody argues the industry now operates as a free-for-all at the beginning of the season, with public reefs picked clean of legal oysters within a month. Overfishing, he says, has been putting the reefs at risk for years.
“You would think they were piranhas without any regard for tomorrow,” Woody said. “The management of this resource in Texas is pathetic. I don’t want to think that the next generation will say my grandparents really messed this up. They’re going to know I did what I could.”
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has made efforts in recent years to rebuild reefs in the bay that had been decimated from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and increased salinity in the water. The department distributed more than 79,000 cubic yards of reef-building materials, known as cultch, last summer.
Woody said, however, that those efforts go to waste when competitive fishing practices overfish those areas.
Galveston Bay is still the largest source of the valuable mollusks in Texas, but the bay has gone from dredging 90 percent of the state’s oysters in 2000 to just 42 percent last year.
Woody’s competitors, however, doubt STORM’s environmental motives.
“They are saying it’s all about doing a better job than Parks and Wildlife, but that’s a smoke-screen,” said Lisa Hall of Prestige Oysters Inc., one of the largest oyster producers in the U.S. “Unless you have the money of Bill Gates, you don’t have the resources to maintain an area that huge. And I don’t think we can take his word for it.”