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.

Moore has mastered an essential tactic of an underdog leader on technical issues: throwing the bureaucrats' numbers back at them. So while Texas Parks and Wildlife argues for limited entry by saying that the shrimp are in danger, Moore responds by turning to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a federal agency that reports to the Department of Commerce. The NMFS has reported that 80 percent of the world's commercial species of fish are overfished or are near the limit of what can be harvested. But when NMFS surveyed the shrimp stock in the Gulf of Mexico as a whole, it reported no threat to the resource.

Despite the NMFS report, Moore says, limited entry is a done deal. The next big issue is turtle excluder devices. The federal government has proposed requiring shrimpers to use new and different TEDs that would cause them to lose even more of their catch, and the shrimpers have balked. Some Galveston Bay shrimpers are even arguing that they, in particular, don't need TEDs, and a few researchers appear to be backing them up. In a recently published study of Texas bay shrimpers, University of Oklahoma sociologist Robert Lee Maril says federal scientists have intentionally misused scientific data to raise the mortality of turtles and to blame shrimpers for causing it. For example, Maril's report says, in 1990, the government spent $800,000 for a review of scientific literature on turtle mortality by scientists from the National Academy of Sciences. After a review of the literature, but without conducting any new research, the scientists concluded that the estimates of 11,000 turtles killed a year was too low and raised the estimate to 33,000 to 44,000 deaths a year.

With those kinds of numbers, the killing of turtles in nets should be a frequent occurrence. But in fact, Moore says, he has captured only four turtles in 35 years of shrimping, two in the Gulf and two in the bay. He hauls out a map of Galveston Bay from the National Marine Fisheries Service that depicts its systematic sampling of the Bay with trawling nets.

He points to "X" after "X" that shows where the NMFS dragged in search of turtles. The crosses cover most of Galveston Bay, and yet, Moore says, "they didn't catch one turtle out of 400 landings, 70 trips from April 1 to November 1. They didn't see one turtle. This is their data." In 20 years of systematic trawling of the Bay, he says, the state has never caught a turtle either. Given this, Moore wonders, why should Bay shrimpers have to work with TEDs, which can hamper their catch? If there aren't any turtles to protect, why are they continuing to be hamstrung? "Where's the justice?" he asks. "Where's the logic?"

Moore may be bitter, but he's determined to lead shrimpers effectively in public forums. Last year, when the NMFS called a public meeting to present information on increased turtle deaths, angry shrimpers shouted down the scientist making the presentation. It did little for the shrimpers' public image, so at a more recent meeting on new, more stringent federal regulations, the shrimpers had their act together. First, Moore denounced an NMFS proposal to require a different type of TED than is currently used, a so-called "bottom" shooter designed to allow turtles to escape from the bottom of a net instead of the top. (Shrimpers fear bottom shooters will be more prone to foul their nets with debris and allow shrimp to escape.) Then, rather than shout down the opposition, Moore and the shrimpers came up with an alternative proposal: to have a more stringent set of fishing regulations in the near shore fishery, where turtles are most likely to get caught.

Still, joining in the political game of proposal, pressure, alternate proposal may only delay, not stop, the forces that have been pushing Galveston Bay shrimpers toward extinction. Moore himself says he'd never let his son go into the shrimping business without taking a long, hard look and earning a college degree first. And yet, although they've suffered in every political battle from not having stable, professional leadership, Texas' bay shrimpers have not organized permanently. When the summer shrimping season opens next month, Richard Moore is going to put on his white rubber boots, fuel up the Cindy Michelle, and start fishing again. He has got to make a living. It may take a critical crisis to rally the bay shrimpers again, and the next time may well be too late.

For now, though, Moore is still trying to do what he can to put off what may well be the inevitable. As Moore was explaining to a visitor the plight faced by Galveston Bay shrimpers, a phone call came in from a state legislator. He took it in his back office while, outside on the docks, C.L. Standley could be seen standing on the hot deck of the Captain Clyde in the noon sun, sewing his net with a pointed card of polyethylene twine, while his deck hand looked on.

"The fishing fell off next to nothing," Standley says, when asked why he'd come in so early. "Near Texas City the net got fouled. I felt a jerk, she closed and busted the make line right behind the wing ropes."

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