Protect Texas' oyster industry: Support House Bill 51 as filed
By Tracy Woody - Guest Column
May 17, 2017 at 4:21 p.m.
House Bill 51 by State Representative Ryan Guillen as originally filed included promising provisions supported by members of the oyster industry and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The industry is in favor of an oyster license buyback program and GPS-tracking systems on commercial boats, as well as provisions to hold bad actors accountable for their actions. However, amendments adopted on the House floor prior to passage create significant negatives which overwhelm the good intentions of the legislation and bring forth strong objections by the oyster industry.
As amended, HB 51 would be detrimental to the oyster industry and related businesses. The bill creates an uncapped, antibusiness "cultch tax" on processors based upon the amount of oysters the processor purchases, regardless of whether they are purchased from Texas or out of state, publicly harvested or privately grown. The state's existing "sack shell tax," or the price per tag on a sack of oysters, is designed to raise money for the state to buy cultch.
Placing processors in charge of their own shell replacement on public reefs creates liability for state-required cultch planting using private vessels and crews supervised by state employees. A significant fiscal implication to the state is anticipated, as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would require funds for additional employees to plan, monitor and supervise shell planting; weekend, holiday and overtime pay for supervisors; and additional boats, sampling gear, GPS devises, side scan sonar equipment, computers, software and other required equipment.
Similar cultch-related proposals were considered by Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners in November 2016, though they were ultimately not adopted because they would have required private leaseholders to subsidize public reefs through a similar unsound and unfair tax.
The amended legislation creates an uneven playing field by unfairly targeting innocent oyster purchasers who may have unknowingly purchased oysters harvested at night or oysters harvested from restricted areas by a bad-acting harvester. It also excludes shippers, again targeting oyster processors, and includes enhanced punishment for those found to be harvesting "junior" or under-sized oysters, including jail time. Oysters are not an endangered species; they are merely regulated. There should be penalties for harvesting junior oysters, but the punishment should fit the crime.
HB 51 severely erodes the effectiveness of the "follow the tag" inspection process and increases potential health risks to the public. Because there is no sound economic model for inspection to prevent inadvertently buying undersized oysters, innocent buyers could forfeit the oysters they already purchased and be put out of business if they missed junior oysters that are required to be sacked when delivered. Currently, oysters must be delivered in sacks to the buyer. Under the amended legislation, the buyer would have to unsack the oysters, sort through them and then resack the oysters, thereby compromising the integrity of the "follow the tag" process.
So what does this mean for the industry? Should HB 51 become law, likely the only processors who can remain in business will be in Louisiana, thereby bolstering our neighboring state's economy while Texas takes an enormous hit. Texas oyster fishermen and buyers will be at a severe disadvantage to out-of-state buyers due to these Texas regulations causing increased and unsustainable prices, giving the upper hand to competitors in Louisiana. Out of state actors will have a competitive advantage over Texans, meaning that these amendments are structured in a way so as to be more onerous on Texas buyers of Texas oysters than out-of-state buyers of Texas oysters.
Such harmful provisions could push Texas operations to close up shop and reform their businesses in Louisiana or other Gulf Coast states where the burden of a "cultch tax" and unfair penalties do not exist. Penalizing responsible Texas oyster-related businesses is bad for our state's economy, our local economies and Texas' reputation as a pro-business state.
Tracy Woody, president of Jeri's Seafood Inc., is a 37-year veteran of the oyster industry, specializing in oyster cultivation. He represents commercial fisheries on the Trinity and San Jacinto and Galveston Bay and Basin and serves as a council member on the Galveston Bay Estuary Program and is a member of the Oyster Advisory Work Group.