Through droughts, floods and constant threats, a vital way of life on the Texas Coast carries on
Misho Ivic stood firm as a storm raged outside. Speaking Croatian into his cellphone, he stared off into the distance, oblivious to dark clouds and roiling waters. A moment later, he’s speaking Spanish to an employee. He takes a seat at a long conference table, fully in command.
“With oysters, there’s either too many or not enough,” Ivic said. On this morning, he had too many and was busy making calls to sell the excess supply.
The owner of Misho’s Oyster Co. in San Leon is bullish on bivalves. Despite two consecutive years of flooding, seven years of drought, hurricanes, oil spills and legal challenges, Ivic is optimistic about the future of Galveston Bay’s oyster industry.
His company every week fills five truck trailers with 400 sacks of oysters each. Each truckload weighs 40,000 pounds. Below Ivic’s conference room, fresh oysters ride a conveyer belt to employees who will process them. Despite the rain, the traveling oysters carry a clean, sweet salt-air smell.
“All these oysters that we harvest, they are almost like soldiers,” Ivic said. “We know where they came from, which sacks they are in, which restaurants they went to.”
This oyster season, which began Nov. 1, is turning out better than expected for Ivic, he said, while other oystermen are reporting a low harvest yield with oysters that are too small.
Ivic, who has been in the business 44 years, believes these things come in cosmic cycles: years of drought that increase the salinity in the bay followed by floods that lower the salinity and purge the bay of predators and diseases.
“The 11-year cycle is tied to sunspots,” Ivic said. “We are entering into a very abundant period of the oyster cycle. There’s plenty of good oysters.”
The 15/1,000 solution
Before Hurricane Ike, Galveston Bay produced 70 percent to 90 percent of all Texas oysters, said Lance Robinson, deputy director of coastal fisheries for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“Everything’s been down since Ike,” Robinson said.
The bay lost half its reefs, about 7,000 acres, he estimates.
Texas Parks and Wildlife uses several tools to manage the state’s natural resources. When it comes to oysters, the department requires the legal size of a harvestable oyster to be at least 3 inches long. The department limits the weight of sacks of oysters and schedules the season.
And it also works with commercial oystermen to manage the resources by issuing certificates of location that allow boats with special permits to enter closed areas where the state has prohibited harvesting because of bacteria or other problems. Those with special permits can go in and find larger oysters to transplant in another reef. The large oysters from the prohibited zone will naturally purge the bacteria in time.
“It lowers the incentive for illegal harvesting,” Robinson said.
Knowing the prohibited zones won’t have any large oysters, poachers will move on and won’t get tainted product.
The floods of 2015 and 2016 dumped fresh water in the bay that killed baby oysters. The moderate salinity of the bay was inundated with fresh water, diluting the brackish formula.
The long drought that preceded the floods likewise altered the mix, making the brackish bay too salty.
With the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers flowing into the bay, the salinity is 15 parts per 1,000, Robinson said. The Gulf of Mexico is 35 parts per 1,000. At one point during the seven-year drought, salinity in Galveston Bay was 44 parts per 1,000, making it saltier than the saltwater ocean.
Force of nature
Lisa Halili opened a new package sitting on her office desk. Inside was a hard-bound book she ordered, “Shellfish Safety and Quality.” The thick book had thin pages full of small print. She immediately looked up a passage that said by the year 2050, the Earth’s ever-growing human population would have to rely more on shellfish for dietary needs.
“We need people to know that whatever you put in the water is the food we eat,” Halili said.
As vice president of family-owned Prestige Oysters Inc., the economy and the ecology are more than just her livelihood — they are her children’s legacy.
“It’s like the saltwater gets in your veins, and it’s there,” she said.
Her children grew up on oyster boats, learning the business organically. Her son, Raz, recently closed a big deal with Houston-based food supplier Sysco Corp. and pushes for new technology. Because of Raz, Prestige Oysters now has a Quintus 350L high-pressure machine that can retain 100 percent of meat from shells. Most days, he’s at the shipyard or on the boats.
“He always puts oysters on the truck,” she said.
Lisa Halili’s oldest son, Monty, died in 2015 at the age of 35 from a heart attack. She remembers the last meal she had with him just before his death. It was during a legal struggle with Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management’s harvesting rights claim to 23,000 acres of Galveston Bay reefs.
Tracy Woody and his now deceased father-in-law, Ben Nelson, owners of Jeri’s Seafood in Smith Point, purchased a lease to oyster rights on the 23,000 acres of the bay from the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District in April 2014.
That created a firestorm of dissent from competitors and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages dredging rights in the area. If the courts upheld the claim, it would have jeopardized all oystermen in the bay, opponents said. Lisa Halili and other owners of oyster companies on the bay sued.
“This can’t happen,” Lisa Halili remembers her oldest son saying to her. “We can’t make a living.”
‘How strong words are’
After he died, she became even more obsessed with fighting Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, commonly referred to as STORM, in a lawsuit with other oyster company owners in Galveston Bay. In September, Judge Lonnie Cox of the 56th District Court in Galveston ruled the lease was void, but Lisa Halili is waiting to see whether the Supreme Court of Texas will hear an appeal.
Lisa Halili is vigilant about other human-made threats to the industry. She began researching bills in the state legislature that sought to make the STORM deal legal. She lobbied legislators. She learned many bills that could have helped the state’s oyster industry as a whole were dangerous because they added language that would have allowed the navigation district to sell leases. An example was a buyback bill that would have been similar to existing Texas Parks and Wildlife buyback policies for commercial fishermen.
“I learned how strong words are,” Lisa Halili said.
Oysters are tough creatures able to survive the droughts and oil spills and bacteria that come along, Robinson said. They start out as swimming larvae that form in 68-degree brackish water. The babies develop a muscle that’s like a foot. They search for clean, smooth surfaces to plant their feet. Once they attach themselves with a gluey substance, the babies become spats and will grow into oysters.
Johnny Halili, CEO of Prestige Oysters and Lisa’s husband, is a man of few words. But the pictures on his cellphone speak volumes. In one image, he’s holding a small rock with a lot of oysters attached.
“Look, 20 oysters are growing on that rock,” he said.
The rock is smaller than a golf ball. Fifty oysters can grow on a rock that size, Lisa Halili said. Prestige Oysters recently dumped $2 million worth of clean, Kentucky river rocks onto reefs in the bay. They also regularly put oyster shells back to help baby oysters find a place to plant themselves.
“Throw a rock, grow an oyster,” Lisa Halili said.
She’s working on a campaign to encourage leisure fisherman and recreational boaters to throw rocks in the bay.
Mapping the future
The industry’s future may depend more on aquaculture, something Texas does not yet allow. But the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is planning for its possibility.
Working like urban planners, Robinson and his co-workers are plotting and mapping the bay, looking at the overlapping needs and uses.
“The bay is a mosaic of oil and gas pipelines,” Robinson said. “You couldn’t put oyster aquaculture on top of oil pipelines.”
He’s looking for the doughnut holes in the mosaic where competing interests of recreational boaters, commercial fishermen, shrimp boats and oil pipelines don’t dominate. That’s where any potential oyster hatchery might go. But there’s a lot to work out. For example, Robinson wants to nail down the language that would address a situation in which an owner might abandon a hatchery. Any changes to allow aquaculture would require the legislature to act.
Clifford Hillman, president of Hillman Shrimp & Oyster Co. in Dickinson, developed IQF, a process of quick-freezing oysters. Lately, he’s focused more on shrimp and sold his shipyard to Prestige Oysters. His sisters run Hillman Seafood and they haven’t had many fresh oysters to shuck so far this season.
Back at Misho’s, Ivic remains full of positive prognostications.
“We don’t have a problem with the species,” Ivic said.
He doesn’t think Crassostrea virginica — a species of true oyster native to the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico coast — will become extinct. The restrictions can be attributed to commercial demand for more oysters. The economic planning to let them grow to 3 inches is necessary, Ivic said.
“These oysters have the best taste in all of America,” Ivic said.
Lisa Halili will continue to fight for the oyster industry and a way of life.
“Whenever there’s a crisis in the industry, it is like family in the oyster business,” she said. “We are strong and resilient, and we come back.”