State of Texas Sues STORM Over Contested Texas Oyster Reefs

State of Texas Sues STORM Over Contested Texas Oyster Reefs
Photo by Daniel Salazar

Well, it was probably only a matter of time before the state of Texas got in on the fight over STORM. 

For months private oyster lease holders in Texas have been fighting over whether a navigation district had the right to issue a lease to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (aka STORM) — ceding control of a large portion of oyster reefs in Galveston Bay to just one family — and now the state has finally waded into the fight by filing a lawsuit against STORM and everybody else who helped the company obtain a lease of land that the state says is and always has been under state control. 

As we wrote in our cover story, "Murky Waters" earlier this year, back in early 2013 oystermen Tracy Woody and his father-in-law Ben Nelson, the owners of Jeri's Seafood, set up a separate company, STORM. That summer, word got out that the Chambers Liberty Counties Navigation District had granted STORM a 30-year lease for more than 23,000 acres of submerged land, paying $1.50 per acre to start with for the property without getting the public's attention until the lease was signed and approved in April 2014. The lease was granted despite the fact that the CLCND was giving STORM rights to land that was already privately leased through the state. 

Since the news broke last summer Woody and Nelson and their allies have been fighting against the Lisa Halili, one of the owners of Prestige Oysters, and other people who hold private leases in the waters being claimed by STORM. Woody and Nelson say they are doing this because Texas oystering is in danger and they're the only ones who can save it. Their opponents say this is a land grab designed to allow Jeri's Seafood to control a huge portion of the state's oyster reefs.

The state lawsuit isn't the first time STORM has been caught up in some legal wrangling this year. Back in April opponents to the STORM plan — Johnny and Lisa Halili, along with Clifford Hillman, of Hillman's Seafood, Michael Ivich, owner of Misha's Seafood, and oystermen Jure Slabic and Ivo Slabic, all big names in the small world of the Texas oyster industry — filed a lawsuit against the company, contending that STORM violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, a move that the plaintiffs claim allowed STORM to quietly arrange to get the lease without getting the public's attention.

Previously the same group had filed a criminal complaint in Chambers County against STORM and CLCND over the way the lease was approved by the navigation district. Chambers County Attorney Scott Peal declined to take the bait, deciding at the end of March that "no action [would] be brought" on the criminal complaint. 

But now the state has gotten interested as shown by the lawsuit filed last Friday in Travis County against STORM, CLCND, Terry Haltom, as both a commissioner and chairman of CLCND, Allen Herrington, Ken Coleman, Ken Mitchell and Dave Wilcox, all district commissioners of the Board of Navigation and Canal Commissioners.

The suit was filed by state's Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton on behalf of Texas Parks and Wildlife. According to the petition, it seems STORM has also managed to stomp on Texas Parks and Wildlife officials are displeased because the legislature gave TPWD the sole authority and jurisdiction to regulate the conservation and harvesting of oysters, mussels, and clams from state waters. Essentially, STORM's controversial lease should never have been granted, according to the state:

" In contravention of the State’s laws and the TPWD’s authority, the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District (“CLCND” or “District”), by and through its Board of Navigation and Canal Commissioners (“Commission”), executed a lease (“Lease”) with Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, LLC (“STORM”), purportedly granting STORM exclusive rights for thirty years to harvest oysters, mussels, and clams from approximately 23,000 acres of submerged lands and waters within the District’s jurisdiction in Galveston Bay. 

The District and its Commissioners have no authority to permit any entity to harvest oysters, mussels, or clams from waters in the State. By granting the Lease, the District and its Commissioners are subverting, preempting, and interfering with the State’s regulatory and conservation programs. The District and STORM are asserting unlawful possession over oysters in State waters and STORM is attempting to exclude entities from lawfully harvesting oysters."

To translate, the state is saying that the commissioners and the CLCND sold STORM land rights that actually belonged to Texas Parks and Wildlife and the state is suing to put a stop to it.

On top of that, the land in question is contains public oyster reefs that the state had already leased by other people. That might not have been such a big deal but once STORM's lease was approved by CLCND, STORM started keeping license holders and private lease holders from working the public and private oyster reefs, and issuing "no trespass notices" to try and keep the private lease holders out. Even through the dry legal jargon of the petition, it's clear the state is less than thrilled about all of this. 

The lawsuit also notes that there's concern that other local entities will take a page from the CLCND/STORM handbook and, according to the lawsuit, "vie for similar control of wildlife within their jurisdiction, which would create a patchwork of private and governmental bodies with purported control over natural resources that are held in trust by the State." That's another thing the state won't put up with, hence the lawsuit. 

STORM's most ardent opponent, Lisa Halili, says she is "elated" about the suit. 

We've reached out to Woody for comment . We'll update as soon as we hear back. 

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