The Big Fight in Galveston Bay Over Oysters

A local  district gave a private company exclusive rights to harvest oysters over 23,000 acres. Opponents say that deal wasn’t legal – and they have Texas Parks & Wildlife backing them up.

By Brenda SalinasJanuary 22, 2015 8:11 pm

There’s one thing you need to know about oysters: they’re crucial to the ecosystem in Galveston Bay.

Tom Harvey, a spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife, says the agency has a vested interest in restoring the oyster beds that were damaged during Hurricane Ike.

“They’re filter feeders which means they naturally clean contaminants over the water,” Harvey says.

Clean water is good for business. Oysters are a $3 billion industry in Texas. Add in recreation, tourism and other businesses that rely on clear gulf water, and it’s closer to $20 billion.

Who’s in Charge?

Texas Parks and Wildlife regulates bay bottoms, where oysters grow. It grants permits to oystermen, who then follow its recommendations on how many oysters to harvest, when and how.

50 years ago the Chambers Liberty Council Navigation District bought a 23,000 acre strip on the Galveston Bay.

A couple of months ago, Tracy Woody had an idea: what if he leased the bay for his oyster business?

His lawyers talked to their lawyers, and they worked out a deal. Woody paid $1.50 per acre for the exclusive rights to harvest oysters in the area for 30 years.

Mary Beth Stengler is the navigation district’s general manager. She says the district has made all sorts of leases before, primarily for pipelines and restoration projects, “so [they’re] under good faith that [they] can do this lease with no problem.”

Woody says he’ll let other oyster companies use the bay, if he gets a cut of their profits – he is a businessman, after all.

What’s the problem?

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says this whole deal was illegal – the navigation district doesn’t have the legal authority to lease the bay for commercial activity.

“The navigation district lacked the legal authority to enter into a lease that would exclude current oyster leaseholders,” Harvey says. “Meaning those people that our agency had issued certificates of location, or the public who wanted to go fishing in that area.”

A Texas Showdown

Woody says he’s ready to make his case in court.

“If the agency doesn’t want to recognize the law and we still firmly believe that we have a right to do this and nobody has proven otherwise then we’re going to go to court,” Woody says. “That’s what courts are for.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife isn’t backing down either.

“We remain open to any type of reasonable discussion,” Harvey says. “We certainly prefer to have an amicable resolution to this matter where every party as much as possible can get what they want.”

Other Gulf oyster companies are also weighing in. Lisa Halili owns Prestige Oysters.

“It’s a money grab, it’s self-centered, it’s for profit, it’s not for the good of the people,” Halili says.

She and other oyster company owners don’t have faith that this fight will be settled anytime soon. So they’re taking the matter up with lawmakers. They want it to be crystal clear that navigation districts can’t lease public resources for commercial activity.

“It’s very simple. The bay, the state water bottom, the beautiful bay that your parents take you boating on, that is a public resource, that means it belongs to all of us to share,” Halili says.

So far, no lawmaker has taken the bait. At least not publicly.

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