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.

Early on a recent June morning, C.L. Standley stood on the deck of his 45-foot-long trawler, the Captain Clyde, and waited expectantly as his deck hand dumped out the contents of a small "try" net for his inspection. To the west, the moon was setting above Dickinson Bayou; west beyond that, in Houston, most people were still twisting in their beds, trying to capture those last few hours of deep sleep before they had to be up and off to their jobs. Standley, though, had been up for his job a while. He had arisen around 2 a.m., arrived at the dock in Dickinson an hour or so later, and then checked over his boat before chugging out into Galveston Bay at close to 4 a.m.

His schedule was set by the need to get to his fishing spot early. He wanted to be ready to drop his nets a half-hour before dawn, the first moment the state says it's legal for him to do so. "Here we are at the full moon," he had said a little earlier in the darkened pilot house, looking up at the glowing disc that cast a pale, soft light on the waves being churned up by his trawler, "and there ought to be shrimp. Now, they do one of two things: they either bury up, which is good, for it means they're not leaving, and usually when they bury up and come back, they'll be a larger size. Or else they've left, which is bad for us, and good for Mexico, which is where they'll drift."

Standley, 57, has been contemplating such questions of the moon, the tides and the movement of crustaceans for two decades. A sturdy man with narrow hips and forearms made muscular from hauling nets, he grew up on a rice farm near Alvin, 20 miles or so from Galveston Bay. If his father hadn't died suddenly of a heart attack when Standley was in high school, he might have stuck with farming. He sold agricultural chemicals for a while, then taught junior high science for eight years in the Alvin area. During the summers, he tried shrimping for fun, and, he says, it got into his blood. About half of Galveston Bay's shrimpers were born into shrimping, Standley estimates, while the rest, like him, have come to it from outside, attracted by the independence of the life and the forces of nature on the water, at times both beautiful and terrifying.

For most of his time on the water, Standley has had little reason to question his decision to go into shrimping. The work is hard, but the returns, both emotionally and financially, make it worthwhile. In recent years, though, some bay shrimpers have begun to wonder if they might be the last of their breed. They feel squeezed on one side by competition from the large commercial shrimping fleets that ply the Gulf of Mexico -- and which would be happy to see all the bay shrimp grow large and migrate out to the Gulf, where they instead of the smaller-time bay shrimpers could catch them. On another side, they feel pressured by competition from a growing international shrimp aquaculture industry. And they also feel squeezed by what they consider to be restrictive and unnecessary state and federal rules that do everything from limit the actual number of people who can legally shrimp in Texas' bays to imply that bay shrimpers are mainly to blame for the deaths of protected sea turtles.

Given the number of bay shrimpers in Texas -- statewide, the bay shrimping fleet is now counted at around 2,000 boats -- these concerns haven't moved much beyond the shrimpers' home ports. The Gulf shrimpers may have the Texas Shrimp Association to give them financial and political clout, but the 300 or so Galveston Bay shrimpers have little more than themselves, their frustrations and the feeling that they, like the family farmer, should be listed somewhere, by someone, on an endangered species list.

Dressed in spotless blue jeans, a blue denim work shirt and the shrimper's characteristic white rubber boots, C.L. Standley hardly fits the stereotype of the shrimper in a dirty T-shirt, drinking up his profits at a dockside beer joint. He has two grown daughters, and, after a long marriage, he and his wife went their separate ways three years ago. He likes to go skiing in Colorado in the winter, and has been courting a woman he met there. Well respected by Galveston Bay fishermen, Standley is chairman of the Shrimp Advisory Committee for Texas Parks and Wildlife. A patient, calm man, he moves deliberately among the winches and cables of his side-rigged trawler. He must have been a good science teacher, for he likes to explain things, and there is plenty of time for that during the hours in which the Captain Clyde drags its nets along the bottom of Galveston Bay.

Before beginning his drag, Standley set the automatic pilot and methodically arranged the net on its winch before dropping it. He took special care that the federally required turtle excluder device, or TED, didn't become twisted and dump his catch back into the Bay. Galveston Bay's fishermen think it's ridiculous that they're required to pull TEDs, because most of the turtle deaths attributed to shrimpers have occurred in the Gulf. Standley says in more than 20 years he has caught a dozen turtles in his nets, and except for a dead one that had been struck by a propeller, all of them were alive and kicking when he returned them to the water.

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.

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?

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."

"It isn't all that big a deal," he adds, counting the wraps he makes around each loop of the net before tying a knot.

Maybe so, maybe not. Or maybe, compared to fighting government regulators and corporate shrimp farming and the multimillion-dollar Gulf fishing fleet, there's some comfort in being faced with nothing more than a ripped net. Fixing a net, after all, is something a self-sufficient fisherman can deal with.

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