How A Texas Oyster Company Is Helping Preserve The Gulf’s Bounty

Food & Drink

It’s early in the morning, and Raz Halili is on the way to work. “Oyster men are early risers,” says the second-generation oysterman and vice president of his family’s world-renowned fishery, Prestige Oysters.

He begins his busy day in the office above the bayside processing plant, making phone calls and sending emails to ensure vessels are out harvesting, logistics are lined up and processing facilities have product ready for the market. The rest of the day will be spent overseeing the docks, in the processing plant or at Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House, the restaurant he opened two years ago.

An Oysterman From Birth

Raz grew up on the fishing docks of San Leon, Texas, on the Galveston Bay, swimming in the marina and watching the shrimp and oyster boats come in. His father, Johnny Halili, of Albanian descent, emigrated from Kosovo in 1976 during a tumultuous time in the country’s history.

Working long hours on the oyster boats, he finally raised enough money to buy his own, and he soon began acquiring other boats and hiring people. His wife, Lisa, weathered many cold winters and hot summers oystering and shrimping by Johnny’s side to build the family business.

Today, Prestige oversees 40,000 acres of private oyster ground leases and more than 100 oyster boats during peak season. Through hard work and determination, the Halilis became the poster family for the American Dream, while instilling their son Raz a strong sense of food, family, and culture.

Originally, his parents did not allow him to work in the Prestige office until after he finished college, but young Raz was keen on learning the trade. During his summer breaks he worked his way up, from helping retail customers at the market to unloading boats, operating forklifts and loading trucks. He was 16 when he first captained his own boat, and continued to do so each summer through high school and college.

Raz developed a deep appreciation for oysters and their contribution to the ecosystem, and realized their role in providing livelihoods for the devoted crews. Although his dream was to play professional soccer in Europe, he ultimately decided to join the family business.

He started overseeing sales, expanding the company’s customer base to service most Houston restaurants and major food distribution houses throughout the country, with product placement in all 50 states and Canada and a growing footprint in the retail sector across the southeast.

Paying It Forward

Thanks to his initiatives, the operation has grown to provide hundreds of jobs in Texas and Louisiana, including many crew and plant workers who are Mexican immigrants. That’s the Halilis paying it forward. “Oystering is very honorable work,” says Raz. “It’s very labor intensive, with workers battling the elements to make sure there are oysters for market. But when these guys leave at the end of the day, they feel good about the work they’ve done.”

Sustainability in fishery has been another top priority for Raz, who led Prestige Oysters in the arduous three-year assessment by the Marine Stewardship Council to become the first MSC-certified fishery in the Americas, demonstrating the company’s commitment to providing a sustainable product. Their team leads the way in sustainable fishery, showcasing it as the way forward for the seafood industry, particularly now when, more than ever, customers want to know how their seafood is harvested.

During Texas oyster season, which runs from November to May, there are dozens of trucks loading up daily to deliver oysters with destinations around the country. At the peak of the season, Prestige hauls in 500,000 pounds of oysters daily, processing about 250,000 pounds each day to send to food service outlets. “When you do it properly—sustainably—you’re not just taking but also replenishing by cultivation,” says Raz.

Prestige’s conservancy efforts include recycling 100% of the shells they process, using them to build and maintain the reefs alongside discarded limestone, crushed concrete and rock, providing substrate to create living reefs and encourage natural growth. “Oysters play a very important role in our ecosystem,” says Raz. “Annually, we’re investing between 2 to 3 million dollars in rock and shell (equivalent to 30,000 tons) to replenish and create new oyster reefs.”

These reef beds are harvested by dredging, which most would consider harmful to the reefs, but Raz knows otherwise. “When we dredge the oyster beds, we do it carefully to rake the top layer around the edges of the reef,” he says. “That way, oysters attached to the bottom can rise to the top, which helps them grow more evenly and consistent in size and shape.”

On the boat, the crew hand-selects the oysters by size, returning any that are not fully developed. The rest are cleaned and sorted to arrive at the processing plant. “That way, we are not over fishing the reefs, to both ensure their conservation and year-round availability.”

Replenishing the reefs is crucial to continue this sustainable harvesting chain. “Mother Nature is, and will always remain, the biggest threat to healthy oyster populations,” says Raz. “A perfect storm can decimate an oyster population within a few short hours. Climate change is a threat, as we’re seeing stronger storms in recent years.” Aside from being an important source of food and income for the community, oyster reefs are the first barrier against coastal erosion.

From Tide To Table

In 2020, Raz took on a new challenge with the opening of Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House. Renovating a sprawling former shrimp shack into a beautiful, inviting waterfront venue, he partnered with award-winning chef Joe Cervantez, leveraging his unique access to the freshest, highest quality Gulf seafood to provide a true tide-to-table experience.

While much of the menu is focused on Prestige Oysters – raw, dressed and chilled or grilled – Cervantez also showcases seasonal Gulf fish and other seafood, along with wood-grilled meats. The two-tiered patio extends into a new marina, making it one of only a few stops along Galveston Bay for boaters to dock-and-dine.

Thanks to the winning combination of Chef Cervantez’ critically acclaimed menu, a lovely seaside atmosphere and warm hospitality, Pier 6 was recognized as a 2022 James Beard Awards semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the country.

“The learning curve is over. We’re more organized as a restaurant, so we’ve been able to expand and implement measures to complement our service and take even better care of our customers,” says Raz, acknowledging that the James Beard Award recognition was a huge compliment to his team’s hard work. “Our focus is on creating an experience, not just for our regulars, but to make it worthwhile for Houstonians and beyond to make a trip to San Leon for a fun time with family and friends.”

Through Pier 6, Raz Halili also hopes to educate customers about seasonality in seafood and offer the unique chance to taste oysters from different regions of the Gulf, providing a hyper-local sense of terroir and mindfully cultivating, sourcing, and celebrating seafood as a path forward to maintain supplies and ecosystems for generations to come.

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