Oyster union meets to discuss concerns
By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Feb. 11, 2012 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Feb. 10, 2012 at 8:11 p.m.
PORT LAVACA - When a U.S. Coast Guard boat pulls up alongside Mauricio Blanco's oyster trawler, he isn't always happy to see them.
However, on land, they were the officials he most wanted to see at the third union meeting Friday night in Port Lavaca.
They didn't show up.
Blanco, the president of the Union of Commercial Texas Oystermen, stood at the front of the room, raising his voice to be heard over the barely contained rumble of about 80 people.
"We're trying to find the answers to our problems. We did not mean to disrespect you, or the Coast Guard, but we have a lot of questions and we want answers," Blanco said.
Michael Mitchell, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden, nodded his head.
"We're missing a crucial link to this meeting," Mitchell said.
"They were invited!" Blanco exclaimed.
The reason the U.S. Coast Guard did not attend the meeting is still unclear. Attempts to obtain a comment from Coast Guard officials were unsuccessful as of deadline.
Texas oystermen have been wrestling with one of the toughest seasons they have seen in years.
The oyster reefs were due to open in November, but instead of trawling to pull the tough-shelled delicacies from the salt water, oystermen have been forced to remain idle on shore as toxic blooms of red tide algae along the Texas coast have kept them from their livelihood.
This is yet another blow to an industry that has already dealt with devastation of the reefs in the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008, and battled the stigma attached to Gulf Coast seafood after the British Petroleum oil spill in 2010.
Oyster harvesting is regulated by Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens and the U.S. Coast Guard. There is a natural tension between the regulators and the regulated, but the shortened season has made the tension almost palpable.
In the meeting on Friday, the game wardens attempted to answer the intent questions, but many of the questions were directed at the agency that did not attend.
Members of the audience lobbed complaints at the game wardens, who did show up, about the agency that didn't.
John Williams said he lost two hours of his day after his boat was checked three times by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has been checking every boat for illegal immigrants, arresting them out there on the water, a woman said, as others in the audience nodded. Why are they keeping people from simply making a living, she asked.
"I feel some anger and unhappiness and displeasure, but we are looking at the oysters and the resource. I'm sorry that the group you're unhappy with isn't here, but we don't look at papers. Our agency doesn't look at citizenship. That's not what we do." Mitchell said.
Blanco said many in the industry think the federal agency is targeting them.
"We're hard working people. We're only trying to support our families and it feels like they want to drive us out of the business," he said.
Blanco has been working on the water for more than 20 years. In the face of one of the worst seasons he has ever seen, with many of the Texas bays still off-limits for harvesting, he decided that he and the other oystermen need a voice. He started the union in December and they now have more than 200 members.
"As fishermen we don't share information," Blanco said. "We all remain shy and we remain lone rangers, and I think it's time for a change."
They have a number of issues to deal with, Blanco said.
Local environmentalist Diane Wilson, the union executive director, said she thinks it is crucial for those in the commercial oyster industry to band together now to make themselves heard.
"Now is an important time and if they don't come together, there are too many powerful forces out there, and they are going to get crushed," Wilson said.