The Texas oyster fishery: Past, Present & Future
Ben and Tracy have been fairly successful at promoting the passage of laws and regulations in Austin to protect oyster resources in open season. However, they were mostly unsuccessful at yearly TPWD transplant meetings. They tried to convince the lease holder/shipping companies to vote for reducing harvest pressure from transplant areas by lowering the number of transplant vessel permits, transplant days and prohibiting the use of water cannons. Ben and Tracy practice what they preach. Typically, they only utilize half of their 21 transplant permits and do not use water cannons, while all of the other leaseholders use their full allocation of permits and continue the use of water cannons.
Ben and Tracy lead by example by planting tens of thousands of tons of shell and rock each year on their private leases. They continue to emphasize to the leaseholder group the importance of planting shell and rock to grow their own crops which offsets their dependency on transplanting and public resources. Also, they stress the need to take the ethical high ground and self-police all docks they buy from, resist the temptation of getting rich today on the backs of future generations, and resist the prestige of trying to be the largest oyster shipping company in the world.
Ben and Tracy made a conscientious decision years ago not to deal in illegal undersized oysters and to conserve the resource for future generations. They still needed to continue providing their customers with quality products, so they looked to other states for consistent supplies of sustainably harvested oysters --only to find out there was and still is a national oyster shortage for many of the same reasons as we have in Texas. This required them to turn down new business because there was not enough resource to support it. Taking advantage of this nationwide time of low production and high demand, other large shipping companies have welcomed these new markets without any regard for the resource and have substantially expanded their empires by exploiting the Texas public oyster resource.
It is difficult to keep distributors convinced that sustainability is the reason they cannot be supplied with all the product they need, while other distributors receive a steady supply of illegal oysters from overexploited bays. It will take an educated consumer to convince retail and food services to buy from distributors who only buy sustainably harvested oysters.
November 1, 2014 starts the six month oyster season in Texas allowing more than 500 licensed vessels to harvest oysters from public reefs. Each vessel must sell to a state certified dock. Sacks are unloaded from boats onto pallets at these docks. They are then loaded on trucks and shipped (mostly out of state where they are accustomed to small oysters) to processors for shucking and the raw half shell market. In Texas you know the oysters are illegal/undersized when you order a dozen half shell oysters and they serve you 18 to make up the difference.
Over the last two open seasons oyster shipper/brokers have aggressively competed for boats to sell across their docks, so naturally the price goes up and quality goes down. These docks then stop inspecting the sacks for size, quality and contents. This allows for many sacks to have up to 75 percent of the oysters to be illegally undersized (less than 3 inches). But the most alarming issue of all is now the boats are placing up to 35 pounds of shell reef in each sack to fill it up to the standard 100 pound measure. Processors who purchase these sacks do not complain for fear of having their supply cut off due to the oyster shortage and the fact they can still average 300 oysters per sack between 2-1/4 to 2-3/4 inches.
Oyster production this 2014/15 season will be extremely low in all the Gulf Coast, and South Atlantic states. Many of these states are increasing regulations, debating shorter harvest seasons or considering no harvest at all. These will create extremely high demand and prices to match, compounding the short-sighted, unsustainable practices of the last two seasons. Even knowing that these practices are detrimental, more industry members are condoning these practices by participating in the same manner as they have seen large oyster shipping companies operate year after year, enabling them to become extremely wealthy. Production of legal oysters this season from public reefs will be almost nonexistent after the first month. Boats will continue to harvest, docks will aggressively compete for boats, sacks will not be inspected, shipper/brokers will ship illegal oysters and shell out of the state, and more oyster reefs in Texas bays will be destroyed. Some may never recover and others will take decades.
These statements are true facts that all of us in the Texas oyster fishery have witnessed in the recent past and can be attested to by most anyone in the Gulf Coast oyster fishery, not the scare tactics used by opponents of Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM). STORM requests that you encourage the Texas legislature and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioners to pass and adopt laws that will protect oyster resources and foster sustainable harvesting methods. Texas already has many laws to protect the resources, but lacks adequate personnel and funding to enforce those laws and carry out programs already in place.
In our opinion a few laws and programs that should be passed are:
Make it illegal to harvest and remove shell from oyster reefs
Reduce the time necessary-- currently about 3 to 4 hours --for law enforcement to check each boat by changing the law to (one sack constitutes a representative sample of cargo for the purposes of determining the percentage of undersize oysters)
Create an oyster license buyback program to reduce harvest pressure on public reefs “similar to what was done in the shrimp fishery”
Increase the cost of oyster boat licenses to offset funding
Require Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) on licensed oyster vessels. This will allow TPWD to monitor vessels via computer thus reducing enforcement cost. While also reducing significantly the cost of maintaining Department of State Health Services (DSHS) shellfish markers used to delineate harvest areas and buoys for TPWD restoration sites. The state should seek grants to make the mandated VMS affordable to all vessels.
Continue and expand the private lease program to include more independent oystermen for reasons previously expressed -- with changes that require the program to be less dependent on transplanting from public resources (much like what STORM will and has done with its submerged lands)
STORM needs your help to encourage Legislators, Texas General Land Office (TGLO) and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) to pass and fund laws to protect the oyster resources of this state. We also ask for your help in urging these agencies to honor the inherent private property rights STORM has in the submerged lands to plant, grow and harvest oysters. These state agencies refuse to recognize the laws of this state or case law that confirms these rights. Remarkably, both agencies have a pattern of being parties to these cases attacking private property rights, and a pattern of losing without accountability, but inflicting great cost on the private land owner. These agencies continue to deny STORM the permits they need to start building reefs. Both agencies have long histories of denying Texas citizens their property rights. For example, in a recently decided 20 year long court battle (Porretto vs TGLO), the Texas Supreme Court found “troubling” the TGLO’s continued recharacterization of private property as public – troubling behavior that eventually forced the private landowner into bankruptcy, because the TGLO’s claims clouded the property from being sold at a fair price and encouraged others to make wrongful claims or use of the property. The Texas Supreme Court found the TGLO wrongfully ignored the law that has long favored the land owner’s private property rights and upheld sanctions imposed on the TGLO lawyers for their behavior. Yet, the land owner had no good remedy for being right and the TGLO being wrong. Once again, the private land owner had to face the frustrating, harsh reality that TGLO bureaucrats could not be held accountable for their wrongful conduct.
That is why we at STORM need your help to urge the TGLO and TPWD to stop playing politics, start following the law, and help STORM save the bay and the oyster resource in a positive manner benefitting all of us. We realize this legal issue will most likely be decided in a forum of due process. STORM is a small family-owned business with three generations actively engaged in daily activities, and the fourth generation shows much promise for the future. We would hate for these state agencies to drag this out for 20 years just because they can.
The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory, according to which individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests by depleting some common resource. The concept is often cited in connection with sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection. "Commons" can include the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, national parks, the office refrigerator, and any other shared resource.
The metaphor “tragedy of the commons” illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover).
A parallel was drawn recently between the tragedy of the commons and the competing behavior of parasites that through acting selfishly they eventually diminish or destroy their common host.
STORM’s mission is to use private property ownership principles to encourage sound conservation and management of our oyster resources. This is not a novel concept. Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), considered by many as the father of modern conservation, long ago realized it was necessary to devise mechanisms to encourage private landowners to limit kills on their own land and sustainably manage the wildlife resource. First, he said it was essential to have suitable trespass laws to exclude unpermitted hunters. Otherwise, it would be hopeless to expect the landowner to practice game management. Second, he said it was necessary to create incentives for landowners to exercise restraint based on self- interest, such as profits from hunts. Leopold said, “The average human can be induced to conserve voluntarily what stays on his own land for his own use but only the exceptional individual will voluntarily conserve what he shares with the community at large." By this measure, our family ventures and companies are exceptional. Our boats harvest about 2.5 to 3 months from public reefs and the remaining months are spent on our private leases.
In contrast, most of the other private leaseholders force their boats to harvest from wild reefs the full six month public season, depleting the resource well beyond what is legal and ethical. These same vessels migrate bay to bay like locusts descending on fields devastating crops up and down the Texas and Louisiana coast. Please take the time to read the attached news articles published at these web addresses:
To stay informed on future updates for laws and regulations, we encourage you to visit our website or our Facebook page STORM Galveston Bay. On either links to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM), you can address any questions, concerns or your point of view. If you support STORM and our mission, we ask that you become involved help to spread the word.
Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, LLC
“It’s Not Just the Name, It’s Our Mission"