Texas lawmakers have passed a bill meant to end years of debate about who has the right to about 23,000 acres of Galveston Bay oyster beds.
Gov. Greg Abbott last month signed Senate Bill 1438, authored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, which prevents navigation districts from conveying land for oyster harvesting or bedding.
The legislation sided with an argument from Galveston County-based oyster harvesters that a lease Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District’s sold to a Chambers County oysterman was improper and should be voided.
The lease, issued in 2014, was never valid because only the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has the authority to regulate oyster bed leases, said Lisa Halili, owner of Prestige Oysters in San Leon.
Prestige and other local oyster companies already harvested oysters within the disputed area before the 2014 lease was signed, Halili said.
The company that was issued the lease, Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management LLC, told Halili she was trespassing, Halili said.
“They said we couldn’t harvest on their beds,” Halili said.
Navigation districts are taxpayer-established entities that provide for the construction and improvement of waterways to aid navigation.
Halili continued to harvest on her allotted oyster beds after 2014, but some of her employees quit because they were afraid people were watching them work and trying to block boats from the oyster beds, Halili said.
Navigation District Manager Mary Beth Stengler and lease holder Tracy Woody did not respond to requests for comment.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has always had authority to regulate oyster leases, said Kerry Spears, an attorney with the department.
Passage of the legislation only further solidifies the department’s position, which was based on previous legislation, Spears said.
This position has always been clear, said Jure Slavic, owner of Gulf Coast Oysters.
Gulf Coast Oysters uses area within the disputed 23,000 acres for its business, Slavic said.
“This law kind of goes over and above to clarify and add an extra dot to the i and an extra cross to the t,” Slavic said. “This law basically reminds them of what the rules and laws are.”
The rule puts an end to years of debate, said Chad Wilbanks, the business consultant for Prestige Oysters, who worked on moving the legislation through the state.
“There’s a tremendous sense of relief that the governor signed this,” Wilbanks said. “We feel like this puts an end to the oyster wars.”
Sen. Larry Taylor, who filed the bill, didn’t return requests for comment by deadline.