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Commercial Gulf shrimpers afloat for another season

By Elena Watts
July 15, 2013 at 2:15 a.m.

David DeLeon, left, laughs with Greg Seaman, right, on board the H.T. Seaman in Palacios. Seaman, who owns of the shrimp boat H.T. Seaman, started shrimping right after he completed high school.

PALACIOS - Greg Seaman, a 49-year-old Palacios native, has managed to stay afloat in a rough business.

Four generations of his family have trawled the Gulf of Mexico for shrimp.

"I'm too old to do anything else," Seaman said. "At almost 50, it's hard to start something new."

From his 53-foot shrimp boat, Seaman pointed across the port to another boat. The Sea Gull has been in his family since it was built in 1926 and has one of the oldest boat licenses in the state of Texas.

On Friday, Seaman and his captain, David DeLeon, 49, prepared their vessel, the H.T. Seaman, for Monday's opening of commercial shrimp season in the Gulf. Both have been in the business for more than 30 years.

The pair, with another crew member, departed Sunday to hunt for a thick concentration of shrimp. The crew can drop their trawl 30 minutes after sunset Monday.

Every two weeks, the boat will break from its round-the-clock shrimping and return to port for fuel and to unload.

It is impossible to know exactly how much shrimp is caught off the Texas Gulf Coast, said Rex Mayes, captain with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Shrimpers from other states trawl the waters as well.

During its peak, the Palacios fleet included about 250 bay boats and 250 gulf boats, Seaman said. Half that, at most, dock at the port today.

While the shrimp population has remained steady since 1982, according to samplings taken by the coastal fisheries division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, shrimp prices have fallen, diesel fuel costs have risen, and regulations have tightened.

To cut costs, some shrimpers have started working alone, without deck hands, while others have moved into the live bait business, for which sportsmen still pay a decent rate, said Mark Fisher, science director for the coastal fisheries division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Trawl webbing styles that create less drag by moving more easily through the water have helped Seaman save money, as well as newer, more efficient engines.

There is no room for error anymore, but experienced captains can avoid the wrong turns, Seaman said. Commercial licenses are sold only to those who already have them, so most shrimpers have the necessary expertise.

Bycatch reduction devices, which allow unwanted species such as turtles and fish to escape alive, are required in trawls. A portion of the catch is lost because of the devices, DeLeon said. However, they serve environmental purposes and save time that shrimpers would spend culling out unwanted species.

Also regulated are the number and size of trawls, as well as mesh size.

"The stakes are too high to ignore regulations," said Mayes. "We could seize the cargo, maybe $40,000 to $50,000 worth of shrimp, and sell it to the highest bidder."

DeLeon and Seaman have never received a citation, and they eke out enough money to cover their bills.

"The 31/35 tail shrimp used to bring $5 per pound in the late '70s, early '80s but now only bring $2.75 per pound - $3 tops," Seaman said. "And fuel used to cost 60 or 70 cents, and now it's $3 plus."

Domestic and foreign shrimp farms, which flooded the market about 10 years ago, help meet consumer demand for the crustaceans but have driven wild-caught shrimp prices down, Seaman said.

Only 10 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States is wild.

Shrimp is one of the cleanest seafood for consumption because it does not accumulate heavy metals like some other seafood, Fisher said.

However, Seaman does not much care for seafood.

"Like the cobbler's son who has no shoes and the carpenter whose house is falling down, I'm a fisherman who doesn't eat much seafood," Seaman said.

Farm-raised shrimp have no taste, he said. His relatives from Kansas, who are used to the farm-raised variety, said the fresh, brown shrimp Seaman caught and served had a funny flavor during a recent vacation in Palacios.

"I wouldn't eat foreign pond shrimp because they're raised in cesspools under shanties," Seaman said. "I'd eat domestic pond shrimp - if I had to - because the U.S. holds tight reins."

Negative media coverage about antibiotics and pesticides used by shrimp farms has resulted in reduced use of the chemicals, Fisher said.

With the changing industry, Seaman has endured the hardships but doesn't want the same for his children.

"In the '80s, it was hard work, but you made good living," Seaman said. "I didn't listen to my mother when she begged me to go to college."

Seaman has steered his children toward college. The business is tough enough that they listened.



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