Bill increasing oyster penalties passes out of committee

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

May 17, 2017 at 9:15 p.m.
Updated May 17, 2017 at 10:10 p.m.

Caren Collins, a fish and wildlife technician for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, measures the size of an oyster.

Caren Collins, a fish and wildlife technician for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, measures the size of an oyster.    Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

A bill that would increase the penalty for harvesting undersized oysters from a fine to jail time passed out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs this week.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was among the five senators who voted it out of committee.

State Sens. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, voted against it.

Kolkhorst vowed to amend it on the Senate floor, however.

She said she hoped those amendments would show how seriously the state takes those who threaten the health of its resources while not penalizing those who depend on it and follow the rules.

"We hear you. We're always very, I think in recent years, sensitive to jail sentences and things like that," she said.

Others, however, weren't so sympathetic to the oyster industry's concerns.

State Sen. Charles Perry, chairman of the committee, was inclined to believe Texas Parks and Wildlife officials when they testified that oyster boats with captains who are ticketed are often seen back in the bay the next day with a new captain. The officials said the Class C misdemeanor those captains receive, which comes with a fine ranging between $25 and $500, has become the cost of doing business.

"All these little practices have unfortunately got you to this point," Perry said. "It's not just your industry at stake. It's the Gulf. It's the ecology of all the things on those oyster beds, so it is harsh. It is harsh by design."

Perry said he'd vote for the bill, which also includes a provision that everyone on board get a license, regardless of whether Kolkhorst is able to amend it.

Under this bill, everyone on board's license could be suspended for 30 days if they are found guilty of harvesting undersized oysters.

The Woody family was among dozens of oyster harvesters and processors who testified against HB 51 on Monday.

Justin Woody, of Jeri's Seafood, said the part of the bill that required oyster harvesters and processors to put back 30 percent of the shell they harvested or purchased that year amounted to double tax.

He said the first tax was one the industry imposed on itself years ago when it asked the Texas Legislature to give Texas Parks and Wildlife the ability to tax a sack of oysters. That money is supposed to go toward rebuilding oyster reefs. Right now, the tax is about 20 cents per sack. He also said it would be easier logistically to continue to rebuild oyster reefs using the first tax and that the Parks and Wildlife had the ability to raise it.

"Parks and Wildlife always say they have a shortage of resources and manpower to see these things through," Woody said. "They can just do this on a bid basis and get a private contractor to come in and build these reefs."

Tracy Woody, also of Jeri's Seafood, also tried to cast doubt on whether harvesting undersized oysters is as widespread a problem as Texas Parks and Wildlife says it is.

He said that only 1 percent of the trips harvesters make each year result in a violation for harvesting undersized oysters. He said that could also be explained by a lack of enforcement.

"We need more data," Tracy Woody said. "We need to know how many times these boats are boarded and not cited compared to how many times they are cited. Should the legislature make decisions on incomplete data, especially when the data clearly does not support such drastic anti-Texas oyster industry, life-altering laws?"

But Brandi Reeder, Texas Parks and Wildlife assistant commander, said enforcing oyster regulations has been a priority and harvesting undersized oysters has been a persistent problem.

"We had - just in one month alone - 37 cases of undersized oysters made and just with those, 60 percent of the oysters were undersized. Our guys are out there working them," she said.

As the season drew to a close in April, almost 70 percent of the public oyster reefs were closed after Texas Parks and Wildlife sampled them and found that more than 65 percent oysters in those reefs were undersized, said Shane Bonnot, the advocacy director for Coastal Conservation Association of Texas.

"This statistic alone should serve as a wake-up call that we all need to do more to conserve this resource," he said.

Both the Coastal Conservation Association and the Texas Foundation for Conservation support HB 51.

At times, the testimony got heated.

Some processors asked how they could be held responsible for the poor decisions made by harvesters.

They said it would take them hours to count every sack of oysters they bought from those harvesters to ensure none were undersized and missed by Texas Parks and Wildlife during an earlier count.

Tracy Woody said if processors take too long to count oysters before refrigerating them, they could fall out of compliance with Food and Drug Administration rules designed to keep oysters safe for consumers.

One processor suggested that the Legislature was motivated only by money and that "simply walking over to the keyboard and hitting delete" on the amendments State Rep. Dennis Bonnen made to HB 51 wouldn't cost them anything.

Perry found that insulting.

"This is a huge resource that Texas needs to do everything in its power to conserve for your benefit as well as everybody else that depends on it, but that is not how you come and testify with sarcasm and that kind of junk," he said.

During the years, Texas' oysters have suffered from natural and man-made disasters, such as Hurricane Ike and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the latter of which shut down oyster harvesting in other Gulf states and increased the pressure on Texas' reefs.



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