The Long Haul

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

At 13 years old, Thuy Vu accompanied her father to City State bank to help him apply for a loan. Tu Viet Vu, known as Big Tu, didn't know much English then, but the Palacios bay shrimper had a vision. Big Tu had ventured into the Gulf of Mexico one night in his little bay trawler and caught more shrimp than he had ever seen. Waves crashed over the side of his boat, but Big Tu pressed on, and in two drags he had filled all his baskets and had to turn back; his deck had no more room. Now he needed $60,000 to build a midsize boat that could withstand the rough waters of the gulf. But he didn't know how to say this in the choppy, harsh tones of English. And language was not his only problem; Big Tu didn't have any credit history.

Thuy hardly qualified as proficient in English -- her classmates laughed at her pronunciation -- but she translated for her father. Big Tu's eldest child implored the bank officials, telling them that her father was a hard worker; he held three jobs. Just give us a chance, she said. If he could build such a boat, he would work nearly 24 hours a day, chasing after white shrimp in the bay during the day and netting brown shrimp in the gulf at night. "If we don't start here, how can we go further?" she asked them.

Maybe the sight of a young girl begging on her father's behalf warmed the bank president's heart. Maybe Big Tu's reputation as an industrious worker preceded him. (At his previous job at the South Texas Nuclear Project plant he had been promoted to foreman in just a year.) Whatever the reason, the bank granted the construction loan.

Captain Tom - Big Tu - built a shrimping empire in Palacios.
Deron Neblett
Captain Tom - Big Tu - built a shrimping empire in Palacios.
In an industry traditionally dominated by males, Thuy leads the shrimpers in the fight against more regulations.
Deron Neblett
In an industry traditionally dominated by males, Thuy leads the shrimpers in the fight against more regulations.
Vernon Bates Sr. with son Vernon Jr. (left) believes special-interest groups  such as sport fishermen - are driving the proposed regulations.
Deron Neblett
Vernon Bates Sr. with son Vernon Jr. (left) believes special-interest groups such as sport fishermen - are driving the proposed regulations.
Shrimper Tuam Tran radios news of a big catch to other Vietnamese-American fishermen.
Deron Neblett
Shrimper Tuam Tran radios news of a big catch to other Vietnamese-American fishermen.

Two decades later the Vu family owns eight gulf boats, a fish dock and an ice-and-fuel house. Most of Big Tu's seven children work in the shrimping business. Thuy runs her father's dock, Captain Tom's Seafood (Tom being Big Tu's American name). Eldest son Tom shrimps on his own gulf trawler. Nikki married a shrimper and helps at the fish house. Tuam works in another fish house. Only Julie moved away to Houston. Jane and Thanh still live at home and attend school. In the chamber of commerce booklet "Shrimping Families of Palacios," the Vus are the only Vietnamese-American family included. They arrived in Texas impoverished and lived with two other families in a two-bedroom trailer, and now they own a mini-empire -- a classic tale of the American dream.

Fleeing the strife in their war-ravaged homeland, the Vus survived a more subtle conflict for acceptance among the Anglos along the Texas coast. Now these refugees face their newest threat from a vastly different force: the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Proposed regulations would immensely restrict the allowable catch for shrimpers. The agency characterizes the limits as moderate -- and necessary to avoid eventual collapse of the shrimp fishery.

But the Vus believe the fishery remains healthy and that the new regulations would cut their profits in half. And for those who aren't as well-off as this family, the effects could be more devastating; they could lose their businesses. For the first time, shrimpers, a notoriously independent and stubborn bunch, are overcoming their grudges and uniting against the proposals. In an industry long dominated by white males, one of the leaders in this fight is the former child who led her father through the loan process years ago, 34-year-old Thuy Vu.

After the Vu family fled Vietnam, they spent seven months of 1976 at a Pennsylvania refugee camp before a Baptist church in West Liberty, Ohio, sponsored them. The church helped Big Tu find work as a janitor at a car dealership where he earned $2.50 an hour. But Big Tu had been a fisherman, and the snow felt too foreign to the family. Through the Red Cross, Big Tu found his brother, Little Tu, working on the Texas coast. (Their full names are spelled the same in English, though pronounced differently in Vietnamese.) That July his family joined Little Tu in the hamlet of Palacios southwest of Houston. The town is so small that "if you drive too fast, you'll pass the town," Thuy warns.

Big Tu went to work mending nets, then built a crab boat that lasted only three days. "The boat was too old," he says with a grin. The father worked construction for the nuclear plant during the day, headed shrimp in the early evening, then worked at night in a crab company. As the power plant project neared completion in 1980, relatives and friends pitched in money and labor to help him build a 32-foot bay trawler. Big Tu became Captain Tom. His wife, Hue, worked as his deckhand while Thuy watched over her brothers and sisters at home. At 5 a.m. the older children rose to work at the Collins Crab company before school. After school they headed shrimp at a processing plant.

One day Captain Tom followed other boats into the gulf and discovered the plentiful brown shrimp harvest. "It's so exciting," Thuy recalls. "It's like we found a pot of gold -- when you come from a small country and here you have the chance to make something." That same chance was taken by many of Big Tu's Vietnamese neighbors. As they were laid off from their jobs at the nearly completed power plant, they began to construct trawlers.

The entry of the refugees into the fishing business enraged long-established Anglo shrimpers. A race war erupted around Seadrift to the south, where one clash resulted in the killing of a white shrimper. The Ku Klux Klan arrived in Palacios and attempted to burn a Vietnamese-American shrimp boat. But the KKK never got a foothold of terror in Big Tu's town. Thuy says no one ever said anything racist to her. Almost everyone in Palacios was friendly and helpful; they still are.

Thuy attributes the continuing calm to the contributions made by Vietnamese-Americans to the community. "There's probably a few out there who still hate us, but the majority, we don't have a problem," she says. Three of the 12 board members on the Vietnamese American Shrimpers Association are non-Asian shrimpers from Palacios, she points out.

Yet even today immigrants and white shrimpers operate under dual systems. That much is evident in Thuy's speech. When she says American, she means white, as if they were the only Americans. On the water, Vietnamese immigrants communicate to each other on a CB channel in their native language. Anglo shrimpers use a VHF channel. The Vus acquired a fish dock and ice-and-fuel house to gain more control over their product and serve the Vietnamese community, she says. They never know when a scary situation like the one in Seadrift might occur. The 40 gulf boats and 17 bay trawlers that dock at Captain Tom's are owned by Vietnamese-Americans. The fishermen sell their shrimp to Captain Tom's, which then sells it to processing plants owned by whites and Asian-Americans.

Today about 150 Vietnamese families, most of them Roman Catholic, have settled in Palacios, operating five fish houses, 60 gulf trawlers and 45 bay boats, roughly 60 percent of the shrimping vessels in the area. Living on the north side along streets named Vietnam and St. Mary, they attend church services in Vietnamese. The ethnic enclave once consisted entirely of trailers, but over the past six years brick-and-mortar houses have replaced most of them.

One street over from the enclave, the Vus built three palatial houses on a gravel road so new that it lacks a street sign. Big Tu bought the land several years back and recently split it among himself, Thuy and Tom. In the move Thuy instantly tripled her living space to 3,800 square feet. Until August, she, her husband, Khanh, and their two children lived in a double-wide trailer.

The telephone rang. The fax machine at Captain Tom's clicked on, and the ivory paper slowly appeared. But instead of a routine business message, the correspondence triggered immediate alarm among the Vu family.

Shrimping colleagues down the coast were spreading the word -- sounding a call to arms -- about a series of proposals freshly announced in April by Parks and Wildlife that would sharply curtail harvests.

"It was a like a slap in the face," Thuy says. She hurried the first dispatch, a petition opposing the state's plans, to Father Joe Phamductrinh at the church to distribute to the shrimpers. The Vietnamese-American community had avoided past disputes with Parks and Wildlife, letting white shrimpers carry the ball. Now they had to voice their opinions, Thuy told them. After all, they constituted the majority of the community's shrimpers.

"It's getting to the point where their livelihoods are on the line, so the Vietnamese people say, 'We have to get involved,' " she says.

Thuy put in an urgent call to Terry Mosier, friend and Palacios City Councilmember. She called Port Lavaca shrimper Joe Nguyen, head of the Vietnamese American Shrimpers Association. She called Vernon Bates Jr., a third-generation Palacios shrimper. She talked on the telephone constantly, notifying everyone she knew along the coast -- and some people she didn't know, such as state representatives.

Thuy, it seems, is a natural-born field commander for this fight. The eldest child in her family -- and an outgoing, talkative one -- she has become a spokesperson of sorts for her family, translating for her parents and handling their financial affairs.

Raised in Palacios, she says, "you're either a shrimper or you marry a shrimper." Her speech is two-thirds Vietnamese accent and one-third Texas twang, a blend that puts everyone at ease. Thuy married a shrimper when she graduated from high school in 1985. The couple and their first child moved to Dallas in 1989 but returned home after a year to help her father set up Captain Tom's Seafood.

When other families heard how Thuy had negotiated her father's financing for the seafood house, they asked her to translate for them as well in their quest for loans. In 1997 City State bank, the same one that granted her father his first loan, asked her to become an adviser. Now Thuy serves on the bank's board of directors. She volunteers on the city's EMS ambulance board. Even kids know who that round-faced, thin-browed woman is; Thuy is also a substitute teacher.

She relied on that varied experience in April, mustering Vietnamese-American shrimpers by the busload to protest the proposals in Austin. At the time, Parks and Wildlife's Shrimp Advisory Board was contemplating the planned restrictions. It rejected them, although the panel has the authority only to make recommendations to the state agency.

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.

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 growthoverfishing, which means more smaller shrimp are being harvested.

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.

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.

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.

And that would be ridiculous, considering that America's demand for shrimp has more than doubled since the early '80s. Texas produces over 70 million pounds of shrimp a year, yet that accounts for only 20 percent of U.S. shrimp consumption. The rest is imported. And the American consumer wants to eat domestic shrimp, Tuam says.

Bay shrimp, an opaque sandy color, splatter onto the deck around 9 a.m. All matter of marine life kick and squirm in the pile. Crabs, even the baby ones, sidle about with their claws raised in a futile defense. Tuam shovels the catch into a bathtub-size plastic container filled with salt water. The fish float to the surface. He simply skims them and tosses them overboard to the delight of pushy squawking seagulls. The shrimp, less buoyant, remain on the bottom.

In rubber boots, Tuam shovels the shrimp onto a square stainless-steel table fitted with a chute, where Thuy sorts the shrimp from the smaller bycatch. Her fingers, clad in yellow latex gloves, travel nimbly over the pile. Shrimp fall into the basket below the chute.

Captain Tom has taught his daughter well.

E-mail Melissa Hung at melissa.hung@houstonpress.com.

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