Texas Supreme Court Ruling Keeps Oysters Under State Control

STORM and CLCND cite Texas Water Code §61.111 in their claim to manage the resources. The conflict between the CLCND and Texas Parks and Wildlife ended in a State Supreme Court decision in favor of Parks and Wildlife. Photo: Prestige Oysters

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

A storm that brewed in Galveston Bay for the past four-years over the ownership of Texas oyster production rights has finally subsided. A Texas Supreme Court ruling and new legislation has effectively shuddered the Chamber-Liberty Counties Navigation District (CLCND) claim to lease submerged bottomland to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM) for the purpose of growing oysters.

Tracy Woody, manager of Galveston’s Jeri’s Oyster Company, founder of STORM . Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

In an article first reported by Gulf Seafood News in 2015; members of the CLCND approved a 30-year lease to STORM, founded by Tracy Woody, manager of Galveston’s Jeri’s Oyster Company, covering more than 23,000 acres. The controversial lease included both public and private oyster leases already issued by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to other harvesters.

STORM was awarded the lease after approaching the district with an offer to pay up to $69,000 a year for the exclusive rights to plant and harvest oysters on submerged land that stretches to Smith Point and extending west to San Leon in Galveston County.

Galveston Bay, one of five oyster producing areas in Texas, historically produces more than 80 percent of the oysters harvested in the state.

“Simply put this was an attempted theft of a public resource,” said Raz Hallili of Prestige Oysters, a second-generation oyster fisherman in the bay.  “My family is extremely pleased with the Supreme Court ruling as well as the passage of the Texas Senate bill to ensure this will not happen again. No organization should control a state natural resource, it is just morally and ethically wrong to attempt such idea.”

Raz Hallili with his mom Lisa, owner of Prestige Oysters. In his Facebook post he said, “the Supreme Court of Texas gave my mom the perfect Mothers Day gift, a clear and strong ruling in favor of Texas vs CLCND/STORM. Now hopefully you will rest and take a long over due vacation!”  Photo: Facebook

The District supported STORM’s effort to obtain a federal permit to construct oyster beds, as well as the right to protect its oyster beds from trespassers. With the appearance of  “No Trespass” notices, the Texas Parks and Wildlife filed suit against the district, its commissioners and STORM arguing CLCND had exceeded their legal authority. The state sought invalidation of the lease and restitution for each oyster harvested.

Delivering the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote,  “While the statute allows the District to lease land and regulate marine commerce, the question of whether oyster cultivation qualifies may be precluded when comparing the exclusive power granted to the Department. The Department shall regulate the taking and conservation of fish, oysters, and other marine life.”

Delivering the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote that  Wildlife and Fisheries “shall regulate the taking and conservation of fish, oysters, and other marine life.”  Photo: State of Texas

The Texas legislature recently passed a bill relating to prohibiting the disposition of property interests by navigation districts. In the legislation the State’s Water Code was amended to read “a district may not convey or exchange any interst in real property to an individual or private entity for the purpose of bedding or harvesting oysters.”

“With the Supreme Court decision, and the newly passed legislation, a new clarity and comfort has been given to fishermen so that they can continue to invest with confidence in the Texas oyster industry,” said Hallili, a board member of the Gulf Seafood Foundation. “The court’s decision reaffirms that Texas Parks and Wildlife is the sole governing authority over oysters.”

Although the Texas Supreme Court ended part of a long-running inter-governmental battle over the District’s exclusive oyster-farming lease, part of the lawsuit continues.

Justice Blacklock wrote the state could not collect restitution nor sue the District, however, a lawsuit against the commissioners could continue with STORM having no standing to participate in the current appeal. He was careful to explain that the Court’s holding only allows the State’s claims to go to trial, not whether the State will ultimately win on the present facts.

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. He is also owner of Lallo Photography based in Chapel Hill, NC. .

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