Islander has been a fixture in Galveston Bay waters for 75 years
Jerome Kunz has been harvesting the waters of Galveston Bay for 75 years. He still goes out every day.
“I started going out with Daddy when I was 10 years old. I’m 85 now,” said Kunz, who was born on Galveston Island. “We started fishing on the beachfront with an 800-foot seine. We had no cables and no winch. We caught fish and shrimp for live bait; we got a dollar for a hundred at a bait camp there on 61st Street. Later, we bought a camp called Duke’s Place. Hurricane Carla tore it up after 20 years.”
His father had an old German picket boat then, Kunz said. A picket boat is a small motor-driven boat, between 30 and 50 feet long, usually carried on a larger warship. When Prohibition came into effect, surplus picket boats proved useful for rum running, and also for the Coast Guard charged with intercepting them. After World War II, his father’s picket was put to service with the other boats of Galveston’s “Mosquito Fleet” of shrimp boats at Pier 19.
“My dad was friends with the guy who started Sampson’s seafood there at Pier 19, and he would sell his catch to them,” Kunz said.
Today, it’s Sampson & Son’s Seafood, and the market still buys from Kunz. Milton G. Sampson III now owns the operation and knows Kunz well.
“I’ve known him all my life,” Sampson said. “I grew up with his kids. Our families used to run together. I’ve always thought he was the finest man in the whole area.”
When he was 16, Kunz met his wife, Carol, he said.
“She was great with kids,” he said of his late wife. “We were married for 56 years and had 10 children.”
Putting food on the table for his large family was a struggle, he said.
“I used to work from sunrise to dark, seven days a week,” Kunz said. “In the winter, I used to dredge for oysters. Now I come back in around 10 a.m.
“I get up early and go out to the boat, load ice and set out as the sun rises. That sunrise — it’s awfully beautiful. Then I try to figure out the shrimp. The shrimp, they got a mind of their own. You’re never sure where they’re going to be,” Kunz said.
He sets a small “try net” to see whether he’s found a good spot. Fishing over such a span of years has given Kunz a long perspective on the state of the fisheries.
“There used to be a lot more shrimp in the water,” Kunz said. “Now they’re getting harder to find. I don’t think it’s from overfishing. I think it’s from all the junk in the water. They go to places that are more out of the way of the pollution.”
Sampson believes the main reason for the declining shrimp populations is encroachment by development on their habitat, he said.
“All those saltgrass wetlands they keep draining and building on — those are nurseries for the shrimp,” Sampson said.
St. Vincent, Kunz’s boat, was built in 1985, and has a “strong fiberglass hull,” Kunz said. He bought the boat down the coast in Palacios from a Vietnamese man, he said.
“Those are hard-working guys — I really like them,” Kunz said. “But he was leaving the business and sold me his boat.”
The boat has a 346hp Caterpillar engine and a hydraulic winch to operate the gear of the shrimp net. The pilot house displays two current licenses, one for bait shrimp and one for bay shrimp. At about 20 feet long, St. Vincent is not designed for offshore fishing, though her pilot house is equipped with a berth, now overlain with miscellaneous gear.
“I mostly go out alone,” Kunz said. “My oldest boy worked with me for just a few years. He’s 67 now. All the kids have done well in business, not in fishing. I’ve had deckhands now and then, but mostly they just get in the way.”
You can always get deckhands, Sampson said.
“Some just work for the bycatch,” he said.
Bycatch are the fish brought up in the net that aren’t shrimp, and not marketable by the shrimper.
“The bycatch, I just throw over the side for the dolphins and the gulls,” Kunz said. “They really like it.”
Sampson doesn’t think Kunz will ever retire, he said.
“It’s what keeps him alive,” Sampson said. “It’s just what he does.”