The Long Haul

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

Parks and Wildlife calculates that 80 percent of what a shrimper nets is bycatch, a figure not surprisingly disputed by fishermen. Shrimper Tuam Tran estimates that on a good day he catches one pound of bycatch for every five pounds of shrimp. On a bad day, two to one.

But, he stresses, "When we find bycatch, we move on. We don't want it."

Against a sky of scattered stars, the shrimpers of Palacios push off from their docks, a procession of tiny lights leaving the harbor. It is May 15, opening day of "brownie" season, named for the bay shrimp of that color. Navigating through the dark, Tuam leans back in his captain's seat, which, from its pole bolted to the floor, resembles a dentist's chair. Steering the large wheel with his bare feet, he travels for 90 minutes in the dark to arrive at his preferred fishing spot. During the shrimping seasons, Tuam says, he gets no more than four hours of sleep a night. He rises at three-thirty to get to his boat, the St. Francis, by four-thirty, so that he can arrive at his spot around 6 a.m. By law shrimpers cannot lower their nets until half an hour before sunrise.

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

The Vietnam native has been dragging his nets across Matagorda Bay ever since he arrived from Nebraska as a welder 19 years ago. But at 41 he does not possess the hardened, weathered look of folklore fishermen. Sure, his neck has tanned to a dark, leathery brown from so many afternoons beneath the sun, and he can't rid himself of the persistent stink of the sea, but his face wears a constant faint smile, even when he's brooding.

Tuam drops his 32-foot net in the water, and two wooden planks, the doors, sink into the sea and spread apart, keeping the net open between them. A miniature version hangs on one side of the boat. This is the try net, which Tuam pulls up every 20 minutes or so to see what he's catching, how much of it and how big.

The sea breathes calmly; the sky overhead remains clear. Seagulls line up on a rig line like hitchhikers. The St. Francis drags slowly, at about three knots, rocking only when another vessel passes. Boats stay about 100 feet away from each other -- any closer is considered rude.

Today Thuy joins Tuam, just for the fun of it. Though Thuy owns two gulf boats with her husband, she hasn't been on a trawler for years, not since her father used to take the kids out on the weekends. From his captain's seat, wind from an open window tousling his hair, Tuam points out several trawlers to the right, thumbnail specks far off. Those are from Rockport, he declares. How can you tell from here, asks Thuy. He just knows. Just as he knows, but can't explain, why you can't catch any shrimp in a west wind.

Shortly after the sun has risen, a perfect ball of orange-red in the distance, Tuam raises the try net, which yields a good five pounds of medium-size shrimp, a few palm-size silver "trash" fish and baby blue crabs the size of quarters. Tuam, visibly excited, sorts the pile. It looks like it's going to be a better year than last. In a good year, Tuam says, he can net $35,000. In a bad year, like last year, $3,000.

Tugging the CB microphone to his mouth, Tuam radios his cousin, in the nearby St. Joseph, about the good catch. The Tran relatives maintain their own private frequency, and later, in a lilting voice, someone sings a prayer over the radio.

Prayers come more often these days, with the threat of the new restrictions. The shrimpers' protests managed to convince Parks and Wildlife to revise some of the proposals; the state recently dropped the proposed 600-pound limit in the fall and restored the spring and winter seasons. But last week the Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved the remaining restrictions. After a 90-day waiting period for public comment, the commission will take final action. If the plans are enacted into law, the shrimpers plan to sue.

To Tuam, the proposals send a clear message: Quit shrimping. But he can't quit, he says. He has no choice. Thank goodness his wife works as a lab technician. She's now studying to become a physician's assistant. Thuy perks up from where she sits on the top bunk bed, her legs dangling. Really? How long does that take, she asks. Every year, Thuy says, she signs up for nursing school. And every year she drops the classes. Maybe she should take radiology classes, something as a backup career.

In spite of her family's success, Thuy wonders about the wisdom of betting everything on a long-tailed crustacean. Sometimes she ponders what she might have become had she not been born the first child of shrimpers. All this talk of Texas restrictions and a fishery collapse makes her nervous. If the proposals become law, she says, "We have to go to Louisiana. We just have to move to different places. The towns will be dead." Those who couldn't afford to make their boat payments would have to give up.

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