Oystermen wait for next season, work together

Mauricio Blanco describes the creation of the Union for Oystermen, of which he is president as well as the recent clashes with the U.S. Coast Guard, who are looking for illegal immigrants.
  • A long history

  • People have been eating oysters since pre-historic times. Romans slurped the raw things in salty liquid from their shells. They were the stuff of the working classes in the 19th century. Then it was the poor who went to ...

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  • A long history

    People have been eating oysters since pre-historic times. Romans slurped the raw things in salty liquid from their shells. They were the stuff of the working classes in the 19th century. Then it was the poor who went to the oyster houses to tip their heads back and taste the sharp metallic tinge of zinc as the food slid down their throats.

    Oystering has been a profession on the Texas coast for generations, with men going out in the morning light and coming home with sacks of oysters to sell. Their fathers had done it, and their fathers before them.

SEADRIFT - Mauricio Blanco didn't come from fishing folk - he arrived in the United States, a scared kid from El Salvador who had already seen one dream shattered.

He's a man of average height with short curly black hair sprinkled with gray and a grin that drops the years away. As a kid, he fled a country gripped by civil war and had dreams of being a soccer star in Mexico. He was pretty good and was soon playing for a team when his left leg was shattered during a game.

In the locker room, as the pain jangled through every nerve, he knew he wouldn't play soccer again.

When he healed, his place on the team was filled, his career was over. He was 17 years old.

Blanco made his way to the border, and eventually into the United States.

"Where I grew up, that was the place to go. The United States had always been the country of dreams for me," he said.

His American dream led him to the water. He has worked the Texas Coast for about 20 years, harvesting oysters from the reef. It's a tough, dirty job, but he found freedom and independence.

Now that dream, too, is in peril. Blanco, who sought only a better life for himself and his family, is trying to save a way of life for all oystermen of Texas.



OUT ON THE WATER

The oyster rigs have been put away for months now.

The men have dispersed, some to seasonal jobs in other fields, some heading back out on the water to shrimp until oyster season opens again.

In April, oyster season closed in a frenzy of activity.

The sun beat down and Blanco stood at the helm of his boat, guiding it in a slow, loping circle in San Antonio Bay. His three deckhands worked on the back of the boat, hacking at small clumps of oysters with hatchets, a blur of fingers and blades.

Trumpets blared through his stereo, a Latin beat thumped, while oysters landed on a pile with a clatter.

Blanco, the captain of the boat, watched the pile grow. In the early hours of that morning, he grinned, but his smile got tighter and smaller as the sun moved overhead. It was the last week of their season, and they needed to be moving faster, pulling in a bigger catch. The state allowed each oyster boat to pull in 50 bags a day this year. They had to make that quota. They couldn't afford to bring in any less.

This is how they make most of the money they'll see in a year, harvesting the oyster reefs. At least it used to be.



TROUBLED WATERS

For years, even as the price of shrimp sank, oysters have been profitable fishing. From Nov. 1 to the end of April, the season had been open, and the oystermen could make most of their yearly salary by the hard-shelled commodities they brought in from Texas bays.

Last year, the men were getting ready as the magic opening day approached. They hired their hands, put the oyster rigging on their boats and got ready to make their money. But the season didn't open.

After a record-breaking drought gripped the state in 2011, the waters were warm and salty - the perfect conditions for red tide algae, which carries neurotoxins that kill fish and make oysters and other shellfish toxic.

The toxic bloom thrives in warm, salty water, and has been seen off the Gulf Coast for hundreds of years. When red tide is found in the waters where the oyster reefs are nestled, the Texas Department of State Health Services has to close the bays to fishing.

The state health department sampled water from Galveston, from San Antonio and Lavaca Bay, from all the places oyster trawlers harvest. The bays were choked with the stuff. Millions of fish were floating belly up. They closed the entire Texas Coast.



TOUGH TIMES

Oystering is a profession that draws independent men, men who like to be their own boss. There have been hard times the past few years - Hurricane Ike wiped out the reefs in Galveston Bay, one of the busiest reefs in Texas.

Then the British Petroleum oil spill scared the public away from Gulf Coast seafood, and the prices began falling the same time that the cost of gas to take their boats out to the oyster reefs spiked.

The oystermen weren't hit as badly as the shrimpers - During the past 20 years that industry has stepped ever more steadily toward becoming a thing of the past - but they were hurting nonetheless.

They work under their own power, a crew of three or four hands and a captain who steers the boat. They drive in slow circles, motors chugging and a faint smell of exhaust laced with the smell of salt water and the warm scent of mud.

On Blanco's boat, he tries to keep things comfortable, but he keeps a sharp eye on his crew, pulling the basket up from the Gulf floor and dumping another pile on the sorting table, and then another and another, jumping in and culling oysters barehanded, sending the shells into a growing pile on the deck rapid as machine gun fire.



A NEW LIFE

Blanco came to the business by chance. He was walking along a highway in South Texas when a Seadrift couple pulled over and offered him a ride. They took him in, gave him a home and soon he was out on their boat, learning the business.

He was running their boat for them in no time, and when he had saved up enough money, they took him to a lawyer in Corpus Christi and he became a legal citizen.

Blanco didn't know it, but he had entered an industry on the brink of decline. The sun seems to burn brightest before it sets, and Blanco was seeing more money than he had ever imagined by getting seafood from the Texas waters. He liked oystering, looked forward to the times when he could go out and search for the best beds, the best spots to work over and bring in a good catch.

He bought their boat, and soon had saved up enough money to bring his brother over from El Salvador and to buy another boat.

Blanco and many of those who oyster are shrimpers during the off-season, and they have faced the same problems Texas shrimpers have faced in the past few years. Shrimping used to be what the Texas Coast was known for, but foreign competition drove the prices down while fuel costs went through the roof.

Blanco watched while the oyster industry wasted away and vowed he would not go with them.



A UNION?

When the oyster season rolled by, Blanco tried to stay optimistic, but the idea that had been stirring in the back of his mind wouldn't be still.

A union.

He'd stop after unloading his shrimping catch on the docks in the afternoon, throwing the idea out there to see whether anyone would take the bait.

An oystermen's union. After the BP oil spill in 2010, the oystermen and shrimpers in Louisiana got $49 million in disaster relief from the federal government, while Texas fishermen got $7 million.

Blanco knew about the Louisiana union - the members worked together and as one were a voice loud enough that the government couldn't ignore them.

He talked and, though he sometimes fumbled for the right words in English, people began to listen.



FINDING THEIR VOICES

In the fall, they organized a meeting, and oystermen from across the Texas Coast showed up. They agreed to form a union, in the loosest sense of the word, by listing their names on a sheet of paper.

Texas oystermen are not known for organizing. They make their money by knowing the waters, understanding the bays and the tides and where the best fishing happens. A secretive, independent lot, oystermen have never been big on sharing information or working together. But they were watching their industry take hit after hit. Something had to be done.

"If you get organized, there's a lot of stuff you can do," Blanco said. "Without it, we'd be nowhere. When you're by yourself, you don't have a voice, but working together, we do."

The first official meeting was Dec. 17 in Seadrift, with about 170 people. They named the organization the Union of Commercial Oystermen of Texas. Blanco was elected president.

Word spread, and about 80 attended the next meeting in January.

By the third meeting, more than 300 oystermen had joined the group. There are 523 oyster licenses issued in Texas. Blanco said that more than 300 of the people who hold licenses have become members since the organization was formally created in December.



WAITING FOR RELIEF

The focus was on disaster relief. As soon as the union was created, Blanco and the other members of the board went to work talking to public officials to find out how they could apply for federal relief from economic devastation in the wake of red tide.

Working with Calhoun County Judge Mike Pfeiffer, they put in the request in the early spring of this year. The request has to go through the governor's office, the state emergency management coordinator's office, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and then to the U.S. Congress. Pfeiffer issued a disaster declaration Dec. 7, and they are still waiting to see whether the federal government will acknowledge the disaster and send aid. Experience says the odds are not high, Pfeiffer said.

"It doesn't happen very often in aquaculture. They have good seasons and bad seasons, but it's very rare they have a season like they had this year," he said. "I think it's a possibility that something is going to happen, but it just takes so long and they needed help back when this was going on."



OPENING DAY

As the request for aid made its crawl through the government system, red tide began to clear from the bays, killed by winter cold and rain, and one by one, the bays opened.

The reefs in Galveston Bay are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Ike, so oyster trawlers flocked to San Antonio Bay on opening day at the end of January. Patrol boats from the U.S. Coast Guard and Texas Parks and Wildlife were waiting for them, Blanco said.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens and the oystermen have a tolerant relationship. They often know each other by name and both sides work to be polite when the game wardens flag down their boats to inspect their catch and make sure the oystermen are adhering to Texas law.

The U.S. Coast Guard is a different matter, Blanco said. The men and women stationed in Port O'Connor are on three-year hitches, and their ties to the community - and to the people they regulate on the water - are more tenuous. Blanco rarely dealt with them until this year when they began boarding boats.

The Coast Guard officers were checking papers and enforcing a law that commercial fishermen say has never been enforced in these waters. The law requires three of the four people working on a boat to be American citizens. Having a work visa was not enough, and boat captains were being fined as much as $20,000 for violating the law.

The oystermen were shocked.

Curtis Miller, the owner of Miller's Seafood in Port Lavaca, has been in the business for more than 30 years and had never seen this law enforced.

Working an oyster boat is dirty physical work, and for the past few years most captains have to apply to have legal foreign workers come in for the season, Miller said. Now they were supposed to make sure 75 percent of the crew are U.S. citizens.

Miller said he and others in the industry were surprised and frustrated by the enforcement. Captains couldn't get crews to work their boats, so many of the boats stayed tied to the docks, missing the rest of the season.

On top of this, the state cut their bag limit from 90 to 50 and shortened the hours in a day trawlers could harvest the bays.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Warden Rex Mayes said the number of bags was reduced to make sure the prices stayed up and that the oyster reefs would not be over-harvested.

"You've got to have a plan to protect the market and the resource," Mayes said.

But the oystermen only saw it as another obstacle to one of the worst seasons ever.

"They keep taking it away and taking it away. It's hard and there's a lot of men that were in this 30 years ago that just gave up because it's harder and harder to make a living," Miller said. "If we don't get this turned around I see this going the same route shrimping did."



LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

Miller joined the union and was in the audience when the people packed a hall in Port Lavaca, hoping to talk with members of the U.S. Coast Guard. The federal government didn't show up.

Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens sat at the front of the room, answering questions, and trying to explain that they had nothing to do with what the Coast Guard chose to enforce.

Blanco 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, meaning the U.S. Coast Guard.

"They were invited!" Blanco exclaimed.



A NEW VOICE?

When the meeting ended, the U.S. Coast Guard arranged a closed-door meeting with union representatives. Blanco said he was told they were just enforcing the law.

Lt. Steven Vanderlaske, the public affairs officer based in Corpus Christi, said the same in an emailed statement. Vanderlaske said the Coast Guard crew members have been conducting routine patrols and law enforcement and will continue to do so.

"While our main focus for the oyster fleet is to ensure they are properly outfitted to protect safety of life at sea, our crews are bound to enforce all violations that we observe while onboard," Vanderlaske stated. "The Coast Guard has, and will continue to, work with the Union of Texas Commercial Oystermen to address any immediate concerns they have as well as concerns that may arise in the future."

The season seemed to race by. Every day, Blanco and his men worked on his boat to get their 50 sacks of oysters, hands moving furiously while they sang along to the radio and tried to shake away the sweat dripping in their eyes.

Still, the union was getting attention. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's office came to town to speak in support of the oyster industry. State representatives were filing statements of support for emergency management.

When the season closed, Blanco took down the oyster rigging and got his boat ready to go shrimping. He and his crew have been bait shrimping - it pays better - but the shrimp have already moved from the bays to the Gulf, and they aren't making much money.

The docks are quiet now, and many of the boats are staying on shore, while Blanco and his crew try to find good spots for shrimping.

"We're barely making it. We aren't catching a lot," Blanco said.

He's waiting for oyster season to start again, hoping that this year the waters will be clear of red tide and the season will open on time.

The union has found its voice, and Blanco is hoping that Texas Parks and Wildlife representatives will try to work with them when they start determining what state regulations will be in place when the season opens.

But right now they are waiting for the season to start, to see whether their collective voice has been heard.

"We're tired of being ignored. We're tired of being shoved aside," Blanco said.

The oystermen have been told they can make a difference if they get better educated and organized. They can help manage the sea they feel they know best, but they have to defy their natural instincts as loners.

"If you go by yourself, no one will listen," he said. "This industry will disappear if we don't work together."