The Long Haul

Immigrant shrimpers survived Vietnam and the wrath of Texas rednecks. Can they do the same with new fishing restrictions?

Last month Thuy, with the help of headstrong Houston lawyer Tammy Tran, was named to that advisory board, previously made up of only white males. Despite her rise in the industry ranks, she remains somewhat reluctant about her new role. When Mosier reminds Thuy to attend a city council meeting to discuss the proposals, she groans. Can't David Aparicio go instead? He too is a member of one of the "Shrimping Families of Palacios."

"I'm so new at this," Thuy says with a sigh. She admits she is not the most knowledgeable on subjects such as the history of shrimping regulations. When she can't answer a question, she says honestly that she doesn't know and refers it to someone who might.

"I'm learning, and each day I see so much going on. I can't think it through. It's so overwhelming right now. I go home and lie down and say, 'What can I do?' "

Apparently a lot.

Vernon Bates Sr., a patriarch of one of the oldest fishing families in Palacios, voices admiration for the woman waging the fight for them. "Captain Tom is kind of a leader. And she is kind of a leader. She more or less manages that fish house, and she's smart," Bates says. "She knows what she's doing, and she can hold herself at a meeting."

Bates didn't much like the Vietnamese when they first moved to town. He and other white shrimpers felt at a disadvantage. But the Vietnamese stayed, and now at age 71 Bates calls them his friends.

"I'll tell you the truth. If it weren't for the Vietnamese, we wouldn't have anything," Bates says. "[Parks and Wildlife] would have taken it away this last time. They are the ones who are saving us."

The history of shrimp regulations in Texas is relatively short. The arrival of Vietnamese refugees in the late '70s coincided with the advent of shell-peeling machines, which made it profitable to catch small shrimp. Both resulted in more boats on the water. Too many boats, Parks and Wildlife thought.

In 1989 the agency adopted the Shrimp Fishery Management plan, which restricted the months in which bay fishermen could shrimp (May 15 to July 15 and August 15 to December 15), how much they could catch (a 600-pound limit in the spring) and at what times (half an hour before sunrise till 2 p.m. in the spring, and till half an hour after sunset in the fall).

The agency and industry agreed on a historic limited-entry program in 1995, the first of its kind in Texas. The state capped the number of licenses and began buying some back to retire them. Over time the program should decrease the number of boats. So far the state has bought back 16 percent of the licenses, but now it complains the program moves too slowly.

Robin Riechers, Parks and Wildlife management director of coastal fisheries, credits the buy-back program with stabilizing the number of boats. But at the current buy-back price of $6,000, hardworking shrimpers won't sell, say industry leaders such as Terry Mosier.

"A lot of them have been widows who are retired, or a guy who was going to quit fishing anyway," Mosier says. "I hate to say this, but to date the only licenses bought back are not 'impact' licenses."

Last April, pointing to 30 years of data that they say show the fishery is in danger of collapse, Parks and Wildlife officials proposed additional restrictions on both gulf and bay boats. They would limit net sizes, the number of nets and the size of the catch; close off areas to estuaries; increase license fees and shorten the bay seasons by 15 days to a month.

Shrimpers argue that regulations are unnecessary because the industry takes care of itself. The number of both gulf and bay boats has decreased consistently since the '80s. In 1981 the state issued 5,215 bay shrimp licenses; in 1997, 1,535. This year the agency's aerial photos of the May 15 opening day reveal only 572 boats. And anyone who's a serious fisherman makes opening day.

Parks and Wildlife's Riechers says the industry is not as self-regulating as it appears. "What ends up happening is the attitude, 'If someone won't go out and catch them, I will,' " he says. "ŠIn practice, these people are trying to make a living, and it drives them to continue. It's a vicious cycle. It continues to go about even though the shrimp get smaller and the prices lower."

Planned restrictions would, for the first time, extend area closures and net limits to the previously unrestricted gulf shrimpers. Their boats, manned by crews, stay out for days and weeks, whereas bay shrimpers operate solo and return home each afternoon.

Bay fishermen catch the juvenile shrimp that Parks and Wildlife worries most about. They bear the brunt of criticism from all sides: the government, the environmentalists who fault them for catching other marine species and killing turtles, and the well-heeled sport fishermen who say their trawlers disrupt bottom habitat and cloud the water. Shrimpers in the bay tire of the continual blame for turtle deaths, when the Coast Guard reports that shrimpers are 97 percent compliant with turtle excluder devices.

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