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Fishing the Industry-Nature Line

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

(Page 2 of 2)

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

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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.''