A novel claim that a fleet of commercial boats on the Texas coast has exclusive rights to thousands of acres of seabed -- and the lucrative oysters found there -- has spawned a flurry of high-stakes lawsuits and has state officials saying the move undermines their efforts to protect wildlife.
Some fear the move could lead to a handful of commercial operators holding rights to depleted fisheries, freezing out smaller competitors. The fight could be fierce, in light of how the oyster market alone yielded 4 million pounds and $19.2 million in sales last year.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issues licenses to fishermen so they can ply the water for marine life, as well as leasing access to restricted waters. Other Gulf states such as Florida and Louisiana have similar regulations, with those states reserving the right to issue leases to fish in certain waters.
The Texas agency says the Legislature gives it the sole authority to regulate the conservation and harvesting of oysters, mussels and other aquatic wildlife. But Tracy Woody cries foul, saying the state department is granting leases to submerged land it does not own and over which it has no oversight authority.
At issue is the limited liability partnership Woody created with his father-in-law that reached a 30-year agreement last year with a small government agency called the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District to cultivate and harvest oyster beds along 23,000 acres of submerged land owned by the district.
"I saw it as the only way to continue our sustainable operation of growing our own oysters and providing a quality product to our customers," said Woody, who oversees commercial boats that troll the Galveston and Trinity bays and operates a seafood processing plant.
Oyster harvests are "pathetic," Woody said, because of state mismanagement, overfishing, the lingering damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and a persistent drought that curtailed freshwater from entering the bays, disrupting the delicate balance of fresh and sea water that oysters need.
But his competitors say the lease with the navigation district -- which received an initial payment of $34,600, due to increase to nearly $70,000 a year -- amounts to nothing more than an unlawful attempt to seize control of waters and monopolize access to a prized commodity and livelihood.
"He's taking the food off these fishermen's table," said Lisa Halili of Prestige Oysters, a buyer and processor of oysters. "These guys make a living off this bay."
Several fishing companies, including one managed by Halili, have sued Woody's partnership, which is called Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management. A trial is scheduled for May in Galveston County.
Additionally, the state is taking the partnership and navigation district to court, arguing they have no authority to lease private access to a valuable natural resource.
Leaving the 30-year agreement in place could lead to a "patchwork of private and governmental bodies with purported control over natural resources that are held in trust by the state for all of its citizens to enjoy," the state contends in its lawsuit.
The navigation district is responsible for providing water for its counties and maintaining marine channels. It owns land under the bays, according to Austin attorney Lambeth Townsend, who's defending the district against the state, and lawfully leased that land to Woody. Townsend said the state undermined its argument when in 2009 it leased an area from the district to establish oyster reefs.
But Parks and Wildlife spokesman Josh Havens says that the 2009 lease was a "formal notification" to the district that it would be working on a project to build a few acres of reefs to create more fishing opportunities.
"Without any legal authority, they granted legal rights over these natural resources that belong to the people of Texas," Havens said of the navigation district.
Woody contends that the state too often infringes on property owners in its efforts to manage natural resources.
"Just because Parks and Wildlife issues a lease on someone's property, does that make it all right?" he asked. "Not in my mind. We went to the landowner for the rights."