Dead in the water

Bothered by shrinking catches, growing regulations and a sense of frustration, Galveston Bay's shrimpers say that they, not the shrimp, are the endangered species.

This particular June morning the air is cool and dry from a cold front, and while that makes for comfortable working conditions, it isn't a good sign. Shrimp are unpredictable, even to the people who know them best. The salinity of the water, the tides, water temperature and a hundred other variables work on them. Standley figures he needs to catch close to 300 pounds of shrimp every day just to cover his costs. The day before, he had caught only 70 pounds, and had quit by 10:30 a.m., well before the 2 p.m. daily closing for the spring season.

Although the colored screen of the Fathometer indicates a great deal of marine life beneath the boat's hull, it can't tell Standley whether that life is shrimp or fish or seaweed. By periodically pulling a try net up, the fisherman samples what he hopes he is catching in the bigger net that he drags for an hour and half over the course of three nautical miles. It's not a very efficient system, Standley points out.

"Look at the scope," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of that stuff gets away. If it didn't, that net would already be full. [The catch bag's] just a narrow cone, maybe six inches, eight inches wide, and that net is not spreading 32 feet, it might be spreading 22, 25 feet at the very maximum. That stuff senses that net and that pressure and the noise, and probably swims gracefully around it."

When Standley's deck hand dumps the try net, a tight grin of satisfaction spreads across Standley's broad face. A pink eel slithers toward the scuppers and a couple of blue crabs, their bellies bulging with orange egg sacs, backtrack across the deck, waving their claws in the air. It is going to be a decent drag. Caught in the net are three or four pounds of shrimp, most of them the small brown shrimp that bring 60 cents to 80 cents a pound from processors in Alabama. A few are large white shrimp, big enough to skewer for the grill and free of the Gulf's heavy iodine taste. Low in fat, high in protein, a white Galveston Bay shrimp may be the finest natural food in America. During the monthlong fall season, when the state allows bay shrimpers to trawl all day, consumers will drive to the fish houses along Galveston Bay and buy 50, 100, 150 pounds at a time to freeze for later use. Standley, though, isn't among them. He doesn't eat shrimp very often. It is, he says, like stealing dollars from his billfold.

Those are dollars he can't afford to lose. When he arrives at the dock at Hillman Shrimp & Oyster Company around 1 o'clock that afternoon, he fills three 100-pound boxes with small brown shrimp and partially fills another box with more valuable, larger white shrimp. His income for the day is $327; his costs, he estimates, are about $200, and then his deck hand gets a cut. Still, Standley thinks he may have actually made a little bit of money. It's a good feeling, but one that could easily be offset by bad luck the next time he goes out.

There was a time in Texas when fishermen couldn't give shrimp away. According to Robert Lee Maril's The Bay Shrimpers of Texas, the 19th-century middle class considered shrimp a "cheap fish," one hardly worthy of a main course. Poor people ate shrimp because that was all they had. In 1890, the only major commercial market for shrimp existed in Galveston. Shrimp were caught by two-man to four-man crews hauling seines from sail-powered schooners. The boats were maneuvered toward shallow water and the fishermen jumped out and hauled the seine together.

Improved ice making and canning technologies, along with better rail transportation, resulted in shrimping starting to boom during the 1920s. By then fishermen had adapted the new otter trawl technology, in which a motor-powered boat dragged a net with two heavily weighted, metal framed wooden doors that spread the mouth of the net open. This technology has changed little since. The lack of meat during World War II accelerated the demand for brown shrimp, which, it was discovered, could be fished in the deep Gulf with large trawlers. The owners of the Gulf trawlers built a fishery that dwarfed that of the bay fisheries, and during the 1950s they organized the Texas Shrimp Association, a lobbying group with a full-time professional director. At one time, the TSA persuaded the Texas Legislature to ban bay fishermen from catching brown shrimp. Though the ban didn't last, even today the Gulf industry is pressuring Texas Parks and Wildlife to limit the bay fishery's catch of brown shrimp.

While shrimpers in Texas' bays have steadily increased their catch of brown shrimp during the last 20 years, the Gulf shrimpers have, at best, held their own. The solution from Texas Parks and Wildlife seems simple: stop the bay shrimpers from catching the shrimp while they're small, and let the Gulf fleet catch them when they move into deep water to spawn and, if they've gained weight, are more valuable.

That's fine for the Gulf shrimpers, but a prescription for economic woe for shrimpers in Galveston Bay. Nonetheless, two years ago, Texas Parks and Wildlife declared that it would slow down shrimping in Texas' bays by creating a set of rules that would have virtually eliminated bays as a source of shrimp while putting no limits on shrimping in the Gulf. The regulations would have required bay shrimpers to use a large mesh net during the brown shrimp season and, during the monthlong fall season on white shrimp, would have cut off shrimping at 2 p.m. rather than let it run all day, as has been the case. The regulations would have wiped out the bay fishing communities not only on Galveston Bay, but in small communities such as Palacios, Matagorda and Seadrift down the Texas coast.

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