Island fish market owner lands role of a lifetime as the Texas face of sustainable commercial fisheries
After just a minute in the office of local fisherman and National Geographic Channel’s “Big Fish Texas” star Buddy Guindon, two things are clear: He’s a very busy man, and he’ll still make time for you. The phone keeps ringing and Guindon answers questions from reporters, catches up with his wife and gives the neighbor the green light to borrow his truck to transport a dead dog for burial. His tanned face is framed by a thick, gray beard and long hair. But his gray-blue eyes show a youthful sparkle when he talks about his first grandchild.
Guindon is a family man busy building a fishing empire. With Katie’s Seafood Market on Pier 19 in Galveston, Guindon has built a multimillion-dollar business, supplying Gulf seafood to restaurants, major grocers — including H-E-B and Central Market — and directly to the general public. Katie’s Seafood Market processes 25 percent of the fresh fish caught commercially in the Gulf of Mexico.
But while “Big Fish Texas” is putting Guindon in the national spotlight, he is well known in the industry for promoting sustainability. Katie’s Seafood Market is on its way to becoming a legacy, to be continued through generations. But for that to happen, Guindon must ensure there are enough fish left in the sea, he said.
Hundreds of people gathered on a Sunday evening last month at the The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston’s downtown for the premiere of “Big Fish Texas,” which follows the Guindon clan as it tries to keep Katie’s Seafood Market growing and thriving at all costs. The show also offers a broader glimpse of Galveston and life on the docks.
Eight episodes comprise the first season of the show, which aired Feb. 3. Each episode highlights Katie’s challenges, which appear from land and sea.
On the water, the family battles against long days, even longer nights, a sea full of predators and Mother Nature’s whims.
At home base, the Guindon family and employees struggle to juggle surpluses, shortages and orders while also processing a quarter of the Gulf’s deep-water fish and spearheading initiatives to preserve their fishery.
Guindon first came to Galveston at age 15, wanting to spend time with his father, Gregory Guindon, who lived there at the time. He was impressed that his father was able to make money doing what he loved best — fishing.
Guindon returned to his native Minnesota, finished high school and joined the U.S. Marine Corps. But thoughts of fishing lured him back to Texas. Guindon moved to Galveston in 1978, where he met his wife, Katie. After less than two weeks, he proposed.
Katie’s calls itself “The Home of the Big Red Snapper,” but sells any freshly caught table fish as well as crab and shrimp to commercial businesses and consumers.
Guindon’s office is above Katie’s Seafood Market. It’s a small, crowded room plastered with charter fleet flip charts and photos of family and fishing trips. The clattering and stacking of market stalls, the shuffling of ice cubes poured onto trays and the voices of employees filter through the door. Guindon has an average of six boats with a combined crew of about 20 out fishing for him daily. Some are direct employees, others subcontracting boat captains. Many of his employees are family members. During our interview, his brother Kenny was returning to the harbor with a boat full of snapper. Guindon’s eldest son, Nick, is responsible for the business side, while his other son, Hans, captains the Blackjack. Guindon’s youngest son, Christopher, just started high school but helps out at Katie’s, too. Various nephews and nieces work for him to earn money for college tuition.
“In a family business, it’s important that people have a defined task so you don’t step on each other’s toes,” said Guindon, who learned from his father that you only speak up in a family business when it’s important. Guindon’s father died in December, after having worked for Buddy in Katie’s Seafood Market for many years.
“He got to fish till the very last moment,” Guindon said.
Guindon’s focus these days goes far beyond the daily operations of a family business. He’s a fighter for sustainability in the fishing industry and proudly wears a shirt and a hat with the logo of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, a nonprofit organization of accountable, progressive anglers promoting seafood sustainability and fishery conservation throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
Guindon doesn’t eat farmed fish, which in many cases are fed unnatural diets and raised in small enclosures that breed disease and require heavy use of antibiotics. But Guindon also knows consumers have choices. The only way to keep wild caught fish an affordable option for the majority of the population is to keep fish quotas healthy and that starts with conscientious fishing techniques, Guindon said.
“We have to identify our fish as sustainably caught,” Guindon said.
Katie’s fish are tagged with a date and labeled as wild catch as part of the “Gulf Wild Traceabilty Program,” which ensures consumers know where their fish come from and were caught using sustainable techniques. H-E-B is the only locally operating chain going the extra mile for fresh and sustainably caught Gulf fish, Guindon said.
Asked whether other anglers are always easily persuaded to adapt to new methods that help conservation, Guindon said it’s all about the way it’s presented.
“You don’t grab a person around the neck and stuff food down their throats,” Guindon said. “Set the dish in front of them so they can look at it and see it for the good food it is. It’s the same with new ideas and government regulations.”
A variety of ways can be found to keep the Gulf habitat and its fish quota healthy, he said.
“You put a group of hardworking entrepreneurs such as fishermen in a room together, they will come up with ideas,” he said.
One of these “ideas” was to change red snapper regulations from a time restriction on the legal fishing season to a quota. Before, fishermen had a certain amount of days to catch snapper. They would stay as close to shore as possible to save time. That practice resulted in too many shore-dwelling juvenile snappers being caught. It’s illegal to catch juvenile snappers, which have to be thrown back. Only an estimated 50 percent of throwbacks survive the stress and shock of being caught, which is a huge waste, Guindon said. Under a quota system, fishermen can take their time.
“Now we get to go far out, where there’s bigger fish to catch; it’s that simple,” Guindon said.
A big challenge facing the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance is to get employers and buyers to stop telling fishermen what to catch, but let them bring in what they can find, which also would lead to less fish being thrown back, Guindon said. He’d like to see restaurants adjust their menus and be more flexible with recipes to accommodate such a practice.
“This is the education process to drive home,” said Guindon, who threw up strong hands of weathered skin covered in tiny scars. “We have to educate the consumers that fishermen ought to keep what they catch and bring it to the dock where it should be bought.”
“Big Fish Texas” gives Guindon the opportunity to get his message about sustainability across loud and clear. Guindon was approached by a small production company out of Los Angeles that had taken notice of him through the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance. The production company’s owner, Misty Tosh, traveled to Galveston to film footage and produce teasers to later broker to TV stations. Tosh was nearly driven off the docks by a well-meaning person thinking she was snooping. But Tosh and Guindon met and spent an enjoyable evening drinking at the local bar together. She went back to California with Guindon’s ideas and stories. Soon after, National Geographic Channel officials were asking her to take the idea of a series about Buddy Guindon off the market so they could produce it.
One thing Guindon insisted on throughout dealing with producers and brokers was that his message about sustainable fishing techniques would come across.
“I looked scarier at the time with a bigger beard and bigger hair,” Guindon said. “But the producer promised me with a handshake to get my message across. Then we had a deal.”