The Long Haul

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

One group of shrimpers from Calhoun County has retained Houston environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, who has represented the Sierra Club in the past and sees no conflict in helping people usually viewed as antienvironmental. Actually shrimpers deserve much more credit, he says.

"Shrimpers have been willing to fight industrial pollution when recreational fishing groups were unwilling to," he says, rattling off names of shrimpers who have stood up to chemical and plastics plants. "They were the strongest voice against industrial pollution. It's really important to have that voice. And one of the things I'm concerned about is that these regulations may eliminate coastal shrimping. And I don't think we want to eliminate that voice."

That voice disputes the state's overfishing claim itself. Shrimpers pointed out in an April Parks and Wildlife meeting that the federal government's National Marine Fisheries concluded shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico were not overfished. But apparently Parks and Wildlife means a different kind of overfishing. Two days after the session, the state agency released a letter from National Marine Fisheries stating that the two agencies were in agreement. There was no depletion of the parent stock of shrimp or recruitment overfishing, they say, just growth overfishing, which means more smaller shrimp are being harvested.

Captain Tom - Big Tu - built a shrimping empire in Palacios.
Deron Neblett
Captain Tom - Big Tu - built a shrimping empire in Palacios.

Researchers at Sea Grant, a cooperative between Texas A&M University and offshore shrimp producers, agree with the shrimpers that the population is stable and that growth overfishing does not mean the fishery faces biological problems. Gary Graham, a Texas A&M professor and Sea Grant marine specialist, says that Parks and Wildlife officials had presented the data as indicative of a serious fishery collapse and only changed their tune after that meeting.

"There's clearly no scientific evidence that would indicate any decline in the parent stock and inevitable collapse," Graham says. "Any fishery can be overfished. But if you had to pick one that would be the hardest to overfish, it would be shrimp," Graham says. "It's the only North American seafood that's an annual crop."

An annual crop means that "if you don't catch it, it's just going to die," Thuy says. Shrimp grow like peaches, says Joe Nguyen, a Port Lavaca shrimper. "You have to have a cold winter, then the tree is doing very well," he explains. "Same thing happens on the water. We didn't have a freeze in the winter, and we needed to have it. I don't know if it's a greenhouse effect or pattern, but the old-timers say seven years are hard, cold winters, then seven years are mild winters."

Shrimp are finicky creatures that respond to numerous factors such as water temperature, rainfall, salinity, freshwater runoff and wind. They are elusive even to the people who know them best, the fishermen who say the shrimp have mysteriously left the bay early in recent years. But they say that is an environmental problem, not an overfishing one.

Since shrimpers feel convinced that the fishery thrives, they suspect that Parks and Wildlife has more sinister motives. "I feel like they are driven by special-interest groups more than management issues," Mosier says. "The data that they're using is twisted in such a way to justify the rules."

He refers to sport fishing groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association. Recreational fishing, after all, generates more revenue than the half-billion-dollar shrimping industry. In 1983 CCA successfully lobbied to ban net-fishing of game fish, preventing shrimpers from selling those fish when they are caught in their nets.

Shrimper advocate Tran points to a 1993 letter written to the Parks and Wildlife Commission by Bill Negley, a well-known sport fisherman from San Antonio. Negley proposed "to end shrimp trawling -- except for bait, in all Texas bays by the year 2000" through a buyout program targeting bay shrimpers exclusively, and funded by increased saltwater fees, much like the state program adopted in 1995.

"We can accelerate the termination of this wasteful enterprise. The benefit to the sport fishery would of course be dramatic," Negley wrote. He named Gene McCarthy and Hal Osborn as two Parks and Wildlife officials who were "favorable, but understandably would prefer a low profile." Osborn, director of the Coastal Fisheries Division, oversees the proposals. Parks and Wildlife denies any shady influence by CCA. CCA officials did not return phone calls.

"I wish I could convince everyone that those charts are telling us that there's a problem in this fishery and there are declining catch rates in both the gulf and the bay," the agency's Riechers says. "We can't continue to see that and expect that we're not going to run into more severe problems than what we now have. That's the crux of the issue. You have too much fishing pressure."

But those charts, which begin in 1972 and show bold arrows drawn over plotted points, are misleading, Graham says. "Because '72 was a high year, they show those arrows going down. Those arrows are not statistically valid. Those are just something they drew," he explains. "They did not use a regression model to draw those arrowsŠ.If you will go back to 1960, you wouldn't see such drastic declines."

Thuy says that Parks and Wildlife has since shifted its focus from overfishing to bycatch issues. Trawlers drag across the bay floor, snaring a variety of sea critters besides shrimp. By the time shrimpers shove bycatch overboard, most of it has died. How much bycatch is caught and how harmful the ecological effects are remains unclear.

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