Round Two on the Galveston Oyster Battle

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You can bet there will be an appeal

Many Galveston Bay fishermen are relieved after State District Judge, Lonnie Cox, voided a controversial lease that privatized 23,000 acres of the Galveston Bay. Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM), headed by Tracy Woody, had put a halt on any fishing in the area without their permission when they purchased the lease from Chambers County.

The ruling recognized that Texas Parks and Wildlife has the exclusive authority over the control, the planting, and harvesting of oysters, not navigation districts.

It’s the latest in a series of fierce legal and political battles in Texas over who controls land covered, even only at times, by water.

Woody, a fifth-generation oyster fisherman, claimed his efforts would add ecologically valuable oyster reefs to a bay in need of them. Regulators and others such as Lisa Halili, Prestige Oyster, and Jure Slabic, President of Gulf Coast Oysters, argued that it’s nothing more than a land grab that could close waters to the public.

The ruling is good news, a huge win for not only private oyster lease holders, but for recreational and sports fishermen, and commercial fishermen… “all citizens of the state of Texas.” Slabic is President of Gulf Coast Oysters, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against STORM.

“A priceless resource was saved today thanks to the ruling of Judge (Lonnie) Cox.” The judge ruled the original lease issued by Chambers County was at odds with state regulations.

Crystal Laramore, CEO Laramore Media Group stated the ruling prevented the overreach of Chamber’ Liberty Counties Navigation district. “It also prevented a sole individual from controlling the largest producing oyster system in the bay.”

Woody objects to the ruling. “We will continue to maintain that the rights of property owners must be protected. We feel that the law is clear in its protection of these rights.”

Texas typically owns bay bottoms. But no one disputes the Chambers-Liberty County Navigation District’s ownership of the land it leased to STORM for harvesting oysters.

The district purchased the land from the state in the 1950s, a time of heavy dredging of Galveston Bay’s natural reefs. Shell was used for concrete and building materials, among other uses.

In April of 2014, the district agreed to a 30-year lease with STORM, which will pay as much as $69,000 a year. The lease gives the company exclusive rights to plant and harvest oysters over a significant portion of the bay – a narrow band that stretches along a northeast inlet to Smith Point and extends west to San Leon in Galveston County.

Texas Parks and Wildlife has the exclusive authority over the control the planting and harvesting of oysters, not navigation districts.

Therein lies the major problem, not so much who has a lease, but controlling the planting and harvesting.

Woody said he wouldn’t sell subleases for profit. But he would require the lease-holders to follow his planting and harvesting standards and allow him the first chance to buy their catch for the Jeri’s Seafood processing plant.

Woody said he sought the lease for large-scale restoration, figuring that after decades in these waters he could do a better job than the state at creating a sustainable underwater habitat.

STORM claims its competitors are intruding on its leased land, of which less than a 1,000 acres is producing acres.

A major victory has been won by Lisa Halili, Prestige Oyster, and Jure Slabic, President of Gulf Coast Oysters and other private fishermen, but we haven’t seen the end of this. There will be appeals.

Story by Tom Behrens

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