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

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.

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.

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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.

She explains that shrimpers have a broad antipathy for any government regulation - especially the kind that would limit the hours and seasons of fishing.

While an environmental group might automatically back such regulations for the purpose of conservation of sea life, Ms. Shead explains that Standley ``does his homework ... he studies the numbers, goes through regulations with a fine-toothed comb.'' And in at least one instance he's convinced the group not to back government restrictions.

Government regulation, indeed, is one of Standley's pet peeves. ``There are so many regulations that, if he isn't a Philadelphia lawyer, a fisherman gets violations and doesn't even know it,'' he observes.

In the 1980s, federal and state governments began limiting seasons, hours, and size of catch because of evidence of overfishing.

Standley allows that there are three times more shrimpers in Galveston Bay today than when he started in 1970. Most of the growth in numbers comes from the influx of Vietnamese refugees. That has severely cut the profits shrimpers can make, he says. But he insists that shrimp populations don't appear to be depleted, because shrimping production has been ``the same for 30 years.''

``These rules are to let smaller shrimp grow,'' he says. But the way he sees it, regulations just let a lot of good shrimp ``high-tail it to Mexico.''

The federal government has mandated turtle-excluding nets that would protect endangered sea turtles from drowning when caught in trawlers' nets. The nets are not required in Galveston Bay, but Standley says he still does not believe they are necessary in Texas coastal waters.

``In 20 years I've caught five sea turtles, all were alive. And the boy over here [in the next boat] has never caught one,'' he says. ``So I've got a hard time accepting that I'm a sea-turtle killer.''

Standley, raised on an east Texas rice farm, earned a college degree in agriculture. He says he eventually got into shrimping because it was a lucrative business. Today, however, ``I sure don't do it anymore for the money.''

A sequence of hurricanes, drought, and floods - which caused fresh water to affect salinity in the bay - has caused losses for fishermen in recent years.

But the increased number of shrimpers, which means having to share the wealth of the business, is the biggest sore point among shrimpers.

Standley openly says he resents the Vietnamese fishermen, who flooded to the Texas Gulf coast in the early 1980s and have received government financial assistance as refugees.

Violence between the new fishermen and the native Texans erupts periodically. Standley even witnessed a recent standoff between a Vietnamese shrimper toting an AK47 semi-automatic rifle and a native Texan over a crowding situation on the bay.

``I guess you'd call it racism or just the group that happened to come in ... there'd be resentment if it were Yankees or Vietnamese,'' he says, noting that the Vietnamese have begun to learn the unwritten code of shrimper conduct, which calls for getting in line instead of crowding in, and not throwing a wake over nearby boats.

For all the troubles of life on the bay, there are intangible trade-offs that would lure a person away from terra firma, Standley says. ``There's not a man here who knows he can be in business next year. I'd sell out in a minute for a decent offer,'' he says, and then adds, ``But then I'd be right back in it.''

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