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.

Opponents attacked the proposed regulations by claiming they weren't a conservation measure, but rather an economic allocation that robbed Peter -- bay shrimpers -- to pay Paul -- politically powerful Gulf shrimpers. In order to salvage at least something of their livelihood, bay shrimpers agreed to work with the state on a limited entry plan that would freeze and -- the state hopes -- eventually reduce the number of commercial shrimping licenses in Texas' bays.

A key leader during the negotiations over limited entry was the bay shrimpers' only full-time leader, a combative 53-year-old fisherman named Richard Moore, a man who has a sharp suspicion that nobody wants the bay shrimpers around anymore -- except, that is, the bay shrimpers themselves. Moore moved to a community near Galveston Bay as a teenager; when he was 15 he began working as a deck hand on Theodore "B.B." Hillman's shrimp boat. When Moore was 17, Hillman put him in charge of the family shrimp boat so he could concentrate on a restaurant and other marine enterprises. Moore recalls that he looked around at some of the sadder characters on the docks, fishermen who drank up their small profits at the end of the day, and said to himself it didn't have to be that way. He saved his money, and by the time he was 23 he bought his first boat. For 30 years he has been an independent businessman, but he has always docked at Hillman's, where he got his start, and where he feels like part of the family.

Richard Moore sits down to talk about shrimping at a picnic table under a long, low empty room with a concrete floor and louvered windows that look out onto the docks at Hillman's Shrimp & Oyster Co. The room used to be a net shop, but for the last few years most shrimpers have been too broke to pay someone else to mend their nets, so they do the work themselves. Now the shop is empty.

Moore carries a small black briefcase bulging with papers and a loose-leaf phone book filled with the numbers of the scientists, politicians and legislative aides he has worked with on shrimping issues. As much as anything, he feels, bay shrimpers have been lied to and lied about. They are blamed for the declining catch rate of brown shrimp in the Gulf when, Moore says, the Gulf fishing fleet is being hurt by its own effectiveness. Ten or 15 years ago, a big Gulf trawler hauled two 65-foot nets. Today, it's not uncommon for Gulf trawlers to drag four 70-foot nets.

Then there's the issue of the deaths of endangered sea turtles. Moore recalls that awhile back a woman from San Francisco flew out to discuss bay shrimpers marketing "turtle-free" shrimp, much as some companies market dolphin-free tuna. He was appalled; the federal government reports that shrimpers have a 95 percent compliance rate in using turtle excluders, and that the devices work. Given that, why would Texas shrimpers need to certify that shrimp is turtle free?

"They talk this propaganda in these schools," Moore says, "and they get these little kids to donate their nickels and dimes to save our turtles. It is a farce; it is a lie. I am not going to insult you by telling you that never has a turtle died because of a shrimper, but I am telling you the number they portray us as killing is way out of line."

Not that Moore has been completely resistant to TEDs; in fact, he's helped design them. Moore says he has modified turtle excluder devices to make them more effective since they came out in 1989. Last spring, he flew to St. Petersburg, Florida, to watch a TED he had modified being tested with live turtles while being videotaped by divers. Although turtles can stay submerged as long as an hour and a half, under the federal rules, each of the 20 turtles dropped into the net by divers had to be able to escape within five minutes. All of Moore's turtles escaped within the time limit, with the slowest taking four minutes and 57 seconds.

Moore has a boat docked next to C.L. Standley's that's named for his two daughters, but he hasn't pulled a drag since last November. Instead, he's spent all of his time in Austin, negotiating the limited entry rules that were signed by Governor Bush last month. As the president of PISCES (Professional Involvement of Seafood Concerned Enterprises), Moore operates out of his home and the back office at Hillman's fish house. For the nine months he has been working on regulatory issues, PISCES has paid him $6,000 and expenses, and though that's not nearly enough to pay his bills, Moore says he had to get involved because the bay shrimpers needed someone to stand up for them.

What exasperates Moore as much as anything is the rationale for limited entry. The bay fleet peaked in 1983 with more than 5,000 boats, then steadily dropped to about 2,000 boats, a level at which it has held steady since 1993. If limited entry was needed, Moore wants to know, why wasn't it introduced when the number of boats was more than double what it is now, before market forces had weeded out the inefficient shrimpers?

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