Texas shrimp industry: trying to balance size of fleet with size of catch

Some of the shrimp boats docked in this small coastal town are newly painted. Others look barely seaworthy. But they all are ready to drop their nets with the opening of the Texas bay shrimping season this month.

Early indications point to a good catch, which is encouraging news for the many families here whose material standard of living will hinge on how full the shrimp nets are this year. A good harvest also is seen as central to reducing tensions between longtime local shrimpers and Vietnamese boat owners who in recent years have moved in to share the waters and the catch.

"It would give us breathing room," says Emery Waite of the Seabrook/Kemah Fisheries Coalition, which represents both Vietnamese and American-born shrimpers.

By most accounts, the cause of friction in this community is overcrowding of the bays.And overcrowding is increasingly typical of shrimping throughout the US Gulf Coast region, according to most analysts.

"It's not just a problem with the Vietnamese; it is the whole shrimping industry that is in trouble," says Mrs. Lee Russell, a staff member of a refugee task force established by Texas Gov. William P. Clements.

The problems will not be corrected quickly, according to analysts familiar with the shrimping industry. Solutions, they say, will take several years to have an impact. And to be successful, they must restore some balance between the size of the US Gulf Coast shrimping fleet, the size of the commercial harvest, and the economics of shrimping. The fleet includes the smaller vessels that fish the bays and the larger boats that operate offshore in the gulf.

Solutions include some joint government-industry programs now under way. They are aimed at helping more shrimpers diversify and fish for other species and at helping them learn to operate more efficiently, particularly in terms of energy consumption. Fuel costs now comprise 50 percent of the operating costs of many shrimp vessels.

On the legislative front, Rep. John B. Breaux (D) of Louisiana has indicated he will push this year for a law giving US shrimpers some protection with a system of tariffs and quotas on imported shrimp.

Largely in response to overcrowding, a new law recently was passed in Texas placing a moritorium on bay shrimping licenses through 1983.

The US Gulf Coast shrimp industry has been navigating under turbulent economic conditions since 1979. During the past two years fuel prices have doubled, and Mexican waters have been closed to American boats. US consumers have been more choosy about buying shrimp in a slow-growing economy. As a result of slack demand, shrimp prices have remained relatively low.

Meanwhile, the number of shrimp vessels has increased. Along the Texas coast , Vietnamese refugees relocating to the area account for much of the increase. Most have entered the bay shrimping business, where relatively inexpensive boats are used to trawl the bays for baby shrimp before they migrate into the gulf.

In Texas, a small but vocal anti-Vietnamese sentiment has added racial overtones to what is basically an economic problem. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has held two rallies in support of the long-established American shrimpers. A group of Vietnamese fishermen from Seabrook has filed a suit now being heard in a federal district court to stop the Klan's alleged harassment and intimidation.

Residents of this community see the threat of violence as real, although most add it is being fomented by only a handful of people. While the Vietnamese have contributed to the overcrowding of the Texas bay shrimping industry, many analysts believe they have been given a disproportionate share of the blame.

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, there are some 4,000 bay shrimping vessels on the Texas coast. Only 175 are owned by Vietnamese. Says John Mehos, vice-president of the Liberty Fish & Oyster Co. in Galveston, Texas, any overcrowding is not simply the result of the influx of Vietnamese. "It is just easy to point the finger at them," he asserts.

Much of the friction here stems from problems that largely have been corrected. When the Vietnamese began arriving serveral years ago, they unknowingly violated certain local fishing customs, according to Mr. Waite.

However, while many of the unorthodox shrimping tactics that irritated veteran local shrimpers have ceased, more Vietnamese moving to the area has kept tension high. "For many of the shrimpers, it is now just a matter of survival," says Mr. Waite.

Indeed, a tour of the waterfront finds many of the Vietnamese boats for sale. Tihn Van Nguyen, a young Vietnamese refugee, is quick to offer his boat for "a good price." He says he can make more money as a welder.

The hope here is that 1981 will be a good shrimping season, which will reduce competition among shrimpers long enough for the size of the bay fleet to adjust and perhaps spread more evenly along the Texas co ast.

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