By Mary Alys Cherry
A war over oysters? While it may sound like something Hollywood would dream up for a movie, dozens of Galveston Bay families and businesses found themselves caught up in the middle of it and worried they might lose their livelihood.
That was until last Oct. 26 when Judge Lonnie Cox of the 56th Judicial District Court ruled in their favor, much to the relief of Lisa and Johnny Halili of Prestige Oysters, Stephen Hillman of Hillman’s Seafood, Michael Ivich of Misha’s Seafood and oystermen Jure Slabic and Ivo Slabic.
“There is still work to do,” their attorney, Chris Feldman, said afterwards. “We still have to litigate total attorney fees and for tortuous interference where STORM interfered with our clients’ ability to harvest oysters,” he told The Baytown Sun. “We didn’t get a final judgment but a partial summary judgment, and there are still some things to do. But the big central issue has been addressed, and this case is a victory for everyone.”
The controversy got its start back in early 2013 when the owners of Jeri’s Seafood, Ben Nelson and his son-in-law, Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Tracy Woody, set up a separate company named the Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM).
Then, the next spring, it was learned that the Chambers Liberty Counties Navigation District had awarded STORM a 30-year lease on more than 23,000 acres of submerged land – the better part of Galveston Bay, as one person put it — for $1.50 per acre initially. This despite the fact the land was already privately leased from the state and is normally leased by Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Normally, the navigation district’s job is to improve and oversee waterways, not the harvesting of oysters. That’s the job of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, which leases the reefs.
Shock spread around the bay, still recovering from Hurricane Ike damages, creating a firestorm of dissent from oystermen and the Texas Parks and Wildlife, which manages dredging rights in the area. “They can’t do that can they?” was a frequent question on the lips of oystermen, oyster aficionados, just about everyone who had never heard of a navigation district having the authority to take such an action.
If the courts upheld STORM’s claim, it would have jeopardized all oystermen around the bay. Lisa Halili and other Galveston Bay oyster company owners promptly sued. “This can’t happen,” Halili remembers her son saying to her. “We can’t make a living.”
Now, she said last year after the Cox ruling, “thanks to Judge Lonnie Cox, we are all free to go back to our way of life. For two years, this illegal lease has added to the heartaches of the good people who make their livelihood harvesting oysters. Their life’s work was threatened and jeopardized by . . . dealings on the part of the Navigation District.”
The owners of Jeri’s Seafood and STORM were not happy with the verdict against them and took the fight all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which denied their request to review the Galveston County ruling – ending their illegal lease for good.
Meanwhile, the Galveston County oystermen have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, claiming their constitutional rights have been violated by a conspiracy by Navigation District board members trying to help one company, Jeri’s Seafood, take control of Galveston Bay.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that the Navigation District knew the lease was an under-the-table type of agreement and failed to consider giving the lease to any other party other than STORM, even though they were aware that the plaintiffs and other oystermen were competitors and had competing leases with the state, and that the District failed to seek approval for the lease with Texas Parks and Wildlife. The suit also seeks damages for lost income during the period the oystermen were unable to cultivate and harvest oysters from their leases.