Whatever else they might have accomplished during the recently ended 86th session of the Texas legislature, lawmakers seem to have definitively settled one of the weirder controversies blowing around Galveston Bay in recent years.
We say “seem to have” because this particular brew-up should never have happened in the first place, yet it did. You couldn’t have called a person imprudent for arguing it couldn’t happen, yet it did. So, we’ll hedge our bets about whether the Galveston Bay Oyster War is over, or just looks that way now.
What lawmakers did was pass Senate Bill 1438, by state Sen. Larry Taylor, forbidding navigation districts from leasing or otherwise conveying the right to seed or harvest oyster beds.
Gov. Greg Abbott last month signed the bill into law.
At issue was an exclusive lease the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District in 2014 granted for “rights to use and possession, and to protect against trespass and trespassers, which includes but is not limited to the right to deposit rock, shell or other materials used to create an oyster bed, the right to use boats, equipment and tools to plant, seed, transplant, cultivate, store or harvest oysters” on about 23,000 acres of bay floor.
The cost for the lease was $1.50 per acre, or about $35,000 a year.
The weirdness lies in the fact that laws already existing in 2014 made it clear that navigation districts lacked the authority to do that.
Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management sought the lease to plant and harvest oyster reefs in Galveston Bay and regulate which other oyster companies could use the 23,000 acres.
The company, commonly known by the acronym STORM, had argued it wanted control of the oyster beds so it could enforce conservation measures and other best practices which, in the long-run, would benefit the bay, the oysters and all oyster harvesters.
Other oyster companies characterized the lease as a land grab, which it definitely was, although perhaps one motivated by noble aims.
Everybody except the navigation district and STORM agreed the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, which joined a lawsuit opposing the lease, had the sole authority to grant oyster leases.
Both a district court and the Third Texas Court of Appeals agreed a lease between a navigation district and a company for oyster beds was illegal.
It seemed there was some genuine concern for the bay’s health driving STORM’s attempt to control the beds.
Interestingly, however, people arguing against Taylor’s bill during legislative committee hearings apparently never mentioned the health of Galveston Bay. If they did, that wasn’t recorded in the notes. They talked instead about how the navigation district should be able to make money from leasing its own land, which is actually the public’s land.
And other oyster companies with permission from the wildlife department to harvest those beds reported being harassed.
Lisa Halili, owner of Prestige Oysters in San Leon, said she 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.
It’s odd to pass laws to affirm laws that already exist, but such was the case with SB 1438.
Redundant though it was, the legislature’s action was a relief for Galveston Bay oyster harvesters.
“There’s a tremendous sense of relief that the governor signed this,” said Chad Wilbanks, the business consultant for Prestige Oysters, who worked on the legislation.
“We feel like this puts an end to the oyster wars.”
• Michael A. Smith