Isle shrimpers fight to keep Gulf Coast tradition alive
There’s something idyllic about watching shrimp boats drag their nets in the Gulf of Mexico or wedge through the nickel-gray waters of Galveston harbor, pelicans perched regally on their bows, circled by seagulls, trailed by dolphins. Trawlers at docks or in sunset silhouettes give visitors a sense of the place they may have imagined when they booked their seaside escapes. The boats also offer glimpses of a traditional way of life and an industry built largely by European immigrants; the last traces of it, perhaps.
Shrimp boats around the county are the nearest many tourists will ever get to a class of people who for years have risen long before the sun to ply their trade chasing a product that is the staple of many a Gulf Coast meal. What they catch make their way to bait shops, seafood markets, restaurants and home kitchens, and into our gumbos, fried seafood platters and ceviche.
Shrimp is the favorite seafood among U.S. consumers, many of whom know little about how the tasty crustaceans landed on their plates.
“People go to a restaurant and eat shrimp and think it’s so easy to catch them,” said Johnny Marullo, captain of the Rock Bottom, which docks at Pier 19 in Galveston’s harbor.
But making a living off the shrimp isn’t easy these days and hasn’t been for years, Marullo said.
For decades, local shrimpers working overfished waters have had to compete with shrimp farms and cheap imports that sink prices. And there are man-made disasters, such as the March oil spill in Galveston Bay and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010. Only the toughest and most stubborn have survived.
‘You have to love it’
Just before the season opened in July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted the western Gulf brown shrimp harvest would reach 53.2 million pounds, which is slightly below the historical 56.5 million pounds.
The volume of shrimp imported in 2013 was 507,382 tons, down 5 percent from the quantity imported the year before, according to the administration.
But demand is rising locally and around the nation for wild caught shrimp, which bodes well for islanders like Marullo.
“It’s a lot better now,” Marullo said.
Shrimpers must abide by catch and time limits and other regulations meant to protect wildlife. They are required to use trapdoor devices that allow sea turtles to escape nets. Shrimpers argue the excluder devices reduce their catches, but they face stiff fines if they’re caught dragging nets without them.
There are good days and bad days in shrimping. But they’re all tough.
Casting and hauling nets and scooping shrimp is muscle-straining work. The sun beats down; the heat is oppressive. And sometimes what shrimpers catch is more painful than profitable.
“There’s jelly fish that sting; all day long my body’s on fire,” Marullo, 53, said. “I get stuck by catfish; there’s stingrays. My muscles feel like I just worked out all day. You have to love it to do this kind of work.”
‘Had to get a job’
Marullo does love the work. But not enough to stake his family’s future on it.
His grandparents fished for a living in Italy and shrimped when they came to the states decades ago.
His own father raised five children shrimping. His uncles did well, too. Marullo grew up on family shrimp boats. But like any canny fisherman, he read the signs. In his early 20s, he took a Texas Department of Transportation job for Galveston-Port Bolivar ferries, where he’s a communications coordinator.
“I knew if I wanted to get married and have a family and a home, I couldn’t make a great living shrimping,” Marullo said. “I had to get a job.”
He and his brother William work nights so they can shrimp during the day. Although he doesn’t depend on shrimping to pay the bills, he’s out there as often as those who do, he said.
He and his wife, Linda, a nurse, have two daughters: Amanda, 22, a graduate of University of Texas at Austin, will teach at Galveston Catholic School; Ashley, 19, is studying financial management and accounting at the University of Oklahoma. They both have been on the boat, but neither are interested in shrimping, Marullo said.
William’s sons don’t plan to shrimp either, so the long family tradition will end with the brothers.
Pier 19 is the permanent home of the Mosquito Fleet, named in a time when dozens of shrimp boats with profiles resembling insects swarmed Galveston Bay. In the 1970s, 50 or more tied up there, but only about six remain.
Just before sunrise on a July morning, Marullo steered the Rock Bottom, built in 1977 with concrete hull and fiberglass wheelhouse, into the harbor. Shrimping would not be good, he predicted. A dredging ship was kicking up mud and debris in the channel. Marullo had planned to trawl in deep water near Pelican Island, but that’s where the dredging ship had been working. He couldn’t risk getting the trawl’s otter boards stuck in the mud.
The voice of David Prater, who captains the Bella Rae, came over the radio warning Marullo to stay clear of the dredging. Shrimpers are rivals. If a boat is doing well in an area, others will follow. But island shrimpers are friends, too, Marullo said.
“There’s a lot of competition and it can get frustrating,” he said. “But if my engine stopped right now, every guy out here would come tow me in.”
‘All my life’
To avoid the dredging, Marullo steered toward shallow water near the Galveston Yacht Basin. He circled the boat for about 40 minutes before pulling in the net. Other shrimpers already were headed back to dock with light nets.
Marullo has licenses for bay, bait and Gulf shrimping. On that morning, he was in pursuit of live bait shrimp, a lucrative, but hotly competitive, arena. Live bait could fetch about $4 a pound. There’s a 200-pound limit. Smaller dead bait would bring about $2 a pound. On a good day, when fuel costs and shrimp prices are decent, shrimpers can make $600.
Marullo estimates he’s supplied thousands of pounds of shrimp to local markets and restaurants this year. But that day, he wouldn’t even bother going to market. He had netted only about 11 pounds.
“Well, that’s a day of shrimping,” he said.
The next day, he caught the 200-pound limit.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is buying shrimp licenses back for $8,000 to $10,000 each to reduce the fleet and allow stocks to recover. But Marullo isn’t willing to part with his or give up shrimping.
“It’s been in my family all my life,” he said.