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Fishing the Industry-Nature Line

Veteran shrimper reflects on competing forces at work in Gulf of Mexico port

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 1990


FROM the hurricane-battered docks of Dickinson Bayou to the open waters past the petrochemical plants and the marsh grass, C. L. Standley is a veteran of Galveston Bay. At the helm of his 43-foot whitewashed shrimp trawler, the Captain Clyde, he plies the confluence of rich natural resources and smokestack industry that is Galveston Bay.

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The recent oil spill from the tanker Mega Borg, just 60 miles from the mouth of the bay, grabbed national attention, but it was merely a footnote to the obvious for people whose livelihoods revolve around the bay.

The coexistence of industry and nature is constantly strained here in the nation's third-largest port area. More than half of United States chemical production and a third of oil refining is done on the shores of Galveston Bay, which also produces a good share of the nation's seafood - coming by way of nets like Mr. Standley's.

Between unloading a day's catch - 300 pounds of pale pink shrimp - and mending a net torn when it was raked over oyster shells, Standley reflects on the catalog of bay history represented by his 20 years of shrimping.

Shot through with Texas twang and sentiment, his observations range from the interplay of environmental concerns, government regulation, and the vagaries of ``Mother Nature,'' to the violent cultural clash of Vietnamese fishermen and native Texans.

The Mega Borg accident, Standley says, gives shrimpers pause. ``The same spill in Galveston Bay would be devastating,'' he says of the 40,000-gallon light-crude-oil spill.

``I didn't know the environmental threats were there that I know [about] now,'' he says of his 1970 start in shrimping, which came after earlier careers in chemical sales and teaching junior high science.

The extent of danger to the environment dawned on him over time: He has followed ships' fuel slicks as big as five miles long; he's seen tow boats come within a hairbreadth of rammings that could cause spills of ``who know's what chemical''; and in the early morning dark on his shrimping runs, ``the stench of various chemicals sometimes almost would gag you.''

``From a fishing standpoint I don't know what ill effects this all has. But it's kind of like growing up with the threat of the bomb ... you push it [a Mega Borg-type disaster] out of your mind and hope it never happens,'' he says.

Still, he does not rail against industry. ``I sometimes view the term environmentalist with a little bit of alarm because it seems a lot of them want to return to the way things were 100 or 200 years ago,'' he says.

``I consider myself an environmentalist, but not in the conventional sense. The environment should be maintained in as healthy a state as possible, but it has to adapt to some degree to modern civilization. Yet progress can't destroy Mother Nature, it has to be tempered with concern.''

Standley is a trustee of the Galveston Bay Foundation, a conservation group formed in 1987 to lobby against a proposed reservoir at the mouth of the Trinity River and dredging of the Houston ship channel. Both projects would affect the delicate balance of salinity of Galveston Bay water, which in turn would affect shrimp populations.

It is not easy to get fiercely independent shrimpers involved in civic associations like this, because they may not see that environmental problems have a direct effect on their financial bottom lines, says Standley, who is a past president of Professional Involvement of Seafood Concerned Enterprises, an industry group. Indeed, says Linda Shead, the Galveston Bay Foundation's executive director, Standley himself brings the shrimping industry's perspective to the environmental group, where it might otherwise be missed.