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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Sets Texas|Straight on Oysters

GALVESTON, Texas (CN) — A local navigation board had no authority to issue an oysterman an exclusive lease to grow and harvest oysters in Galveston Bay, as only the state can do that, a Texas judge ruled.

Three Galveston-based oyster companies sued Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM) in April 2014, calling the fisherman's lease a land grab of state resources during a lean time in the oyster industry.

Oysters are a $1 billion industry in the United States, and by far the largest share comes from cultivated, not wild, oysters.

Tracy Woody, president of STORM and owner of Jeri's Seafood in Smith Point, a small town on the bay, said his lease from the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District was valid, and that he would use the waters for sustainable oyster harvesting, not for personal gain.

"Should I pillage and plunder a public resource for personal gain?" Woody said in an interview Monday. "Or should I try to sustain it, without using any taxpayer money?"

But in a 2-page order on Sept. 28, Galveston County Judge Lonnie Cox granted the Galveston companies summary judgment and voided the lease.

She also declared that under the state constitution the district had no authority to issue the lease in the first place.

Woody said he will appeal. A state appeals court has rejected Woody's request to change venue from Galveston to Chambers County, where Woody is a justice of the peace and his seafood company is based.

The plaintiffs' attorney, not surprisingly, had a different take on the lease, calling it "more crooked than a barrel of snakes."

"The entire lease was the product of a corrupt political decision-making process," Cris Feldman said in an interview. "It's refreshing to see reason and the rule of law prevail."

Feldman said there was evidence in the original petition that Woody met privately with navigation district commissioners to negotiate a lease of only 50 cents an acre. A single oyster at a grocery store costs $1.69, Feldman said.

Texas Parks and Wildlife sent Woody a letter in 2014, warning that it considered the navigation district lease invalid.

The state said seven private oyster reefs and a number of public reefs already existed on the land Woody claimed to have leased.

Lance Robinson, deputy director of coastal fisheries for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said in a 2015 interview with Courthouse News that the state grants licenses to private oyster reefs to prevent harvest of potentially toxic oysters near the shoreline, not to bolster the oyster industry.

In their original petition, Hannah Reef and Shrimps R Us said that after Woody executed the now-void lease in April 2015 without public notice, STORM tried to block their access to their private reefs by sending them no-trespass notices, filming their crews as they worked and running one company's boats aground.

Woody, in an interview Monday, denied that he or any of his workers intentionally ran the boat onto shore.

Woody described the public reefs as a "free-for-all" and said they are depleted of oysters in two weeks during oyster season, which typically stretches from November to April. He says that overfishing of the reefs will reduce the oyster supply in Galveston Bay because oyster reefs are built atop the carcasses of dead oysters. Harvesting too many, he says, will prevent the reefs from growing.

Cox also dismissed with prejudice STORM's counterclaims for trespass and conversion, and ordered STORM to pay the Galveston companies' attorney's fees. Attorneys for Shrimps R Us and Hannah Reef did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Aquaculture is an enormous, worldwide business. The United States produces just 0.8 percent of the world's total, while Asia produces 88 percent of it, according to a 2014 report from the National Marine Fisheries Service. More than half of U.S. shellfish production comes from the East Coast.

China is by far the world's largest consumer of seafood, 42.3 million tons in 2009, according to the NMFS. The United States was the second-largest consumer that year, at 7.4 million tons, just ahead of Japan, which consumed 7.1 million tons.

The U.S. industry received a tremendous boost from the Clean Water Act, which cleaned up much of the pollution upon which toxic bacteria feed.

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