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Game warden respects shrimpers he monitors

By By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Sept. 5, 2011 at 4:05 a.m.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Capt. Rex Mayes has worked for the department for 28 years and said he recognizes newer generations aren't as willing to continue shrimping in the state's bays because of the costly risk of failure. Mayes said high fuel prices have made it more difficult to profit off of a catch and experience is especially important in order to successfully navigate the bay waters.

Rex Mayes is the kind of person you want holding nuclear codes or given the task to save the world.

Either way, he has a face you can trust, a person of character.

Mayes became a game warden for Texas Parks and Wildlife stationed in Victoria in 1983.

Two years later, the state agency was charged with overseeing the commercial shrimping industry in Texas, and Mayes began to know the people who made up the shrimping business.

"We saw a continual increase of people entering the industry. It was about getting the core users in the industry stabilized - that was the goal. You'd have really good years of shrimping sometimes, and everybody and their brother would go out and buy a shrimp boat license and take shrimp away from the guys who do this for a living," Mayes said.

Even as he worked to make sure the laws were enforced, Mayes came to admire the men and women who worked in the industry.

"They're the cowboys of the sea. How many people are willing to gamble on that kind of industry?" he asked, sitting in his office, shelves stuffed full of papers and books, pictures of the coast and the sea lining the walls.

Mayes and the game wardens are the policemen of the waters. If a shrimper has a turtle excluder device that isn't mounted at the right angles to allow the turtle to escape or violates some other regulation, they're the ones who issue citations and make sure the laws are being followed.

He's the enforcer

He tries to make sure shrimpers understand it isn't personal. He's the enforcer, but he respects the shrimpers, too.

They're people with guts, these shrimpers, the kind of people who gamble.

"Who else do you know that goes out and follows a hurricane to get some shrimp," he said, with an amazed laugh. They're out there when it's freezing cold in the winter and when it's hot in the summer. It's just what they do."

Over the years, from his vantage point as an enforcer, Mayes has seen a lot of changes in the industry.

Back in the 1990s, he and the other wardens went out in helicopters to survey shrimpers on opening day, hovering over the blue Texas coastal waters.

Back then, there were hundreds of boats dragging their nets. Now, opening day sees fewer than 100 boats on the waters, he said.

Making the job easier

The need to protect the shrimping industry is what got the game wardens involved in shrimping in the 1980s.

In 1996, the state imposed a moratorium on shrimping licenses. A buyback program for the licenses was instituted in 1994.

The buyback program was successful in cutting down on the number of people shrimping in the Gulf and the bays and estuaries, said Norman Boyd, a biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

However, since then, other forces have come into play, weeding shrimpers out of the shrimping industry.

Because of fewer shrimpers, Boyd said the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's job is easier.

"We don't look at regulations or adjust new regulations anymore. We're not as involved in the shrimping industry as we used to be," Boyd said. "Even the buyback program has fallen by the wayside. The price of fuel and the competition from foreign imports has done it for us. There are only about half the number of shrimpers out there than there were when we started the program."

In his 28 years as game warden, Mayes has seen the changes taking place. The children of shrimpers don't learn the business and go into shrimping anymore. They go to college, become doctors and lawyers, taking jobs with higher pay, security and benefits. Shrimping is a hard business to learn even if you don't grow up in it, Mayes said. "They make mistakes, and mistakes are expensive."

"Experience is a key issue, and the lessons that give you experience are expensive," he said. "There's not a lot of kids saying, 'Boy, I want to be a shrimper when I go grow up.' "

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