Stung by cheap imports, stiff state regulations, fewer shrimpers hang on
Donny Stanfield sat in the cabin of his bobbing shrimp boat near the Texas City Dike and gazed out across the water.
“You pick a beacon,” Stanfield said. “A boat comes out and he sees you’re at that beacon. He has to give you a mile.”
That’s one of many rules Stanfield, whose boat’s name is Dying Breed, learned by shrimping in Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
The 53-year-old has been shrimping since he was a teenager, and he’s out on the boat every day except Christmas, he said.
There are a lot of rules for shrimpers to learn, Stanfield said.
Like most rules, these came about to keep order and hark back to a time when shrimp were plenty, fuel was cheap and the water was crowded with boats dragging nets.
‘THERE’S JUST NOBODY’
Generations learned the rules chasing shrimp and livelihoods in the Gulf and Galveston Bay, but fewer people are stepping up to learn the ropes these days, and the keepers of the knowledge all are getting older.
Shrimping along the upper Texas coast is what many would call a dying industry, one that’s fading to cheaper imports and a preference for jobs that require college degrees. The state of Texas, worried about overfishing, has for years been offering incentives for shrimpers to hang up their nets.
When Stanfield started shrimping, fights would break out when someone broke the rules, he said.
“It’s not like that anymore, because there’s just nobody,” Stanfield said.
Texas shrimpers also used to get into arguments with the Vietnamese shrimpers who immigrated to the area, Stanfield said. The immigrants came in the 1970s and 1980s, refugees from the fall of South Vietnam, and their arrival led to fights over territory and about competition.
Sometimes, it was difficult to communicate with the Vietnamese about the established rules, Stanfield said.
HARDER TO COMPETE
But it’s not like that anymore, he said. There are no fights, and the Vietnamese shrimpers stick to the flats, or the shallow water areas, he said.
Besides, they’re all getting older and fewer, too, he said.
It’s not a life John Harrison’s children wanted, he said.
Harrison has been shrimping for 35 years, ever since he graduated high school in 1981, he said.
He normally shrimps in the northern part of Galveston Bay, but water conditions after a March fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. facility in Deer Park, which released chemicals, including benzene, into the bay, have pushed him farther south, he said.
For now, he’s putting his boat in at Katie’s Seafood Market on Pier 19, he said.
Harrison loves being out on the water all day and acting as his own boss, but the price of fuel is skyrocketing and it’s getting harder to compete with cheap farm-raised shrimp imported from Asia, he said.
It’s a hard life, getting harder and there are few takers, he said.
“Nobody’s going to replace us,” Harrison said. “When I’m gone, none of my kids are going to do it.”
‘NOT ANOTHER JOB’
Gulf and bay shrimping are incredible experiences for those who are committed to it, said Mary Smith, who, with her sister, owns Hillman’s Seafood Inc., 5516 Hillman Drive in Dickinson.
“Just to work here on the water day in and day out — it’s amazing,” Smith said. “It’s peaceful.”
There’s an art to fishing that requires lots of practice and knowledge of tides and moon phases, Smith said.
But it’s getting harder and harder for people to stay in the industry, Smith said.
Gulf and bay shrimpers can’t feed Texas consumers’ appetite for seafood, so a lot of the shrimp sold in local grocery stores is imported from places such as China and Vietnam, Smith said.
That shrimp, which is farm raised, is produced a lot cheaper than the expense required to harvest local shrimp, and this drives down prices, Smith said.
Smith is 64 and she’s been in this industry since she was young, she said.
“There’s probably not another job I could get at this age,” Smith said.
‘BIGGER THAN SHRIMP’
The imported shrimp is a blow to the local industry, but shrimpers also are limited by state-imposed standards, she said.
In 1995, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department implemented a program aimed at reducing the number of commercial shrimping licenses along the Texas coast as a method to reduce overfishing.
The department launched a buyback and limited entry program under which it purchases inshore licenses from shrimpers who volunteer and put a moratorium on new licenses, said Lance Robinson, department division director for coastal fisheries.
The department has since placed similar moratoriums on other sectors of the fishing industry, including Gulf shrimp, he said.
In 1995, there were about 3,200 active shrimp licenses along the Texas coast. Since the program began, the department has spent $13.7 million to purchase 2,180 of those licenses, Robinson said.
This moratorium, along with bag weight and time-of-year limits, is meant to preserve the health of the bay, Robinson said.
“It’s a much bigger issue than just shrimp,” Robinson said. “For every pound of shrimp that is caught in a trawl, there are four pounds of other species that are caught in a trawl.”
There’s not a specific benchmark the department is waiting for before it ends the moratorium of licenses, but the department continues to monitor shrimp populations, Robinson said. And people who want to enter the shrimping market can easily buy a license from a shrimper who’s retiring, he said.
“The fact that it’s a closed fishery is just not true,” Robinson said.
‘GREW UP ON THE WATER’
The department oversees two licenses, one for shrimp sold for food and one for shrimp sold for bait, which shrimpers keep live, Robinson said.
A lot of shrimpers have switched to catching bait because they can get more money for their catch, said Jason Kunz, who sails out of Galveston.
The profit may ebb from year to year, but for shrimpers who’ve been on the water their whole lives, it’s more than a job, Kunz said.
Kunz, 47, started shrimping with his father, Jerome, when he was 7 or 8 years old, he said.
“I grew up on the water and was out there every day,” Kunz said.
Now, he shrimps only a few days a week and mainly to keep his 86-year-old father company on the boat, he said.
There’s a historical importance to Texas shrimping, Kunz said.
“As long as there was a boat, there were people getting out on it, trying to catch fish or catch seafood,” Kunz said. “That’s still the same.”
He’s not sure what draws people to the hard work of shrimping, but he thinks there will always be people drawn to the water, he said.
“It definitely gets in your blood,” Kunz said. “It’s hard to get away from it.”