STORM Fight Continues as Texas Oysters Are Salvaged From the Floods

 Some might have thought the flood of fresh water into the bays would cause the two sides to stop fighting as they worked to save their oysters, but they thought wrong. Even as the oystermen grapple with fallout from the past two weeks of flooding the fight over control of the Texas oyster reefs (which we wrote about it in our cover story "Murky Waters" earlier this year) continues. 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 one potentially oyster-reef-devastating flood won't stop them.

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.

Much of the battle has been waged in the relatively refined echelons of the state legislature and court. Woody and Nelson told us back in January they intended to attend the 84th Biennial Legislature in Austin and shop around a bill that would make their lease – which was granted without consulting Texas Parks and Wildlife – completely legal. State Rep. Joe Deshotel filed House Bill 335, a bill described as "relating to the regulation of oyster resources." The bill never made it out of committee. Woody says he made a mistake in trying to make too many changes with the legislation he proposed. “We went to far trying to update chapter 76 of the Parks and Wildlife code. I should have just stuck to the basics about what navigation districts can do with their land,” Woody says.

After that 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 filed a lawsuit against STORM and the Chambers Liberty Counties Navigation District, claiming violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The law suit is still moving forward.

And then, two weeks ago, the rains came. The oyster reefs in Galveston Bay are still being hit hard as fresh water from the heavy rains and floods of the past two weeks flows down the waterways and into Galveston Bay, home of some of the largest oyster beds in Texas. Technically, oysters can survive in fresh water, but too much fresh water weakens the oysters and leaving them vulnerable to predators. The oysters also have trouble filtering out contaminants and bacteria in fresh water, which prompted the Department of State Health Services to close the private oyster leases on May 29. (The public oyster beds are only open from November 1 to April 30.) “The concern is over the fresh waters washing down the rivers into the bays,” Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for Department of State Health Services says. DSHS officials won't allow the private reefs to reopen until both the bacteria and the salinity levels are back to normal. 

Despite their many disagreements on STORM, Woody and Halili both see the flood as a good thing for the oyster industry because it will kill the weak oysters and the diseases they carry and start over with disease-free oyster reefs. On top of that, the flood will bring in lime to help shell development and deposit nutrients on the bay floor that will later be used by organisms, recharging the whole bay system.

“God pushed the reset button,” Woody says. “'A flood gives a fresh start to a new cycle, even though it will be a tough couple of years.”

"In two to three years Texas will have more oysters than it can market," Halili says.

Employees for both Jeri's Seafood and Prestige Oysters have spent the past couple of weeks scooping oysters off of their beds in Galveston Bay and relocating to private leases held in waters that still have the right saltiness to let oysters thrive. Halili says that she decided to apply for a permit to move some of their oysters out of Galveston Bay after the first rains rolled in soaking San Marcos and then dumping enough water on Houston to send a huge amount of fresh water into the bays. The oysters are piled onto the boat decks, as many as they can fit. Then the employees motor the boats over to Halili leases on the edge of the Houston Ship Channel.  

Woody's employees have also been picking up some of the oysters near some freshwater inflows and transplanting them if they have a lower chance of survival. They've been leaving others behind so that the spats (baby oysters) will have shells to attach to when they start growing next fall.  

With both sides working in the contested submerged land there was bound to be some friction. Halili claims that Jeri's Seafood employees have been buzzing Prestige oyster boats for the past couple of weeks. “It's dangerous. If you're out there working, even though an oyster boat goes slow, it's not good to cut in front of anybody the way they have. These boats don't have brakes,” she says.

Woody says they never went anywhere near the Prestige boats though he admits he went out with a camera to record Prestige workers relocating oysters. “We've gone out and never gotten any closer than 200 feet of their boats with a video camera just taking a little video to document what they were doing, and that's it,” Woody says. “We're not barbarians. It's business, that's all it is.”
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray