Part THREE: H-E-B shrimping family fight against the tide
By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Few ships are docked in the Port of Palacios, but they are steadily returning as the Gulf shrimping season continues until Nov. 30. Mechanical failures account for the majority of early returns.
Shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico fill a mesh sack. Ken Garcia counted the frozen shrimp as a crew unloaded hundreds of bags from a Philly's Seafood boat that arrived in the Port of Palacios.
Ken Garcia counts shrimp while Mauricio Hurtado watches. Crews unload bags of shrimp from a boat that just returned from the Gulf of Mexico. Garcia's grandfather, Edward Garcia, came into the industry more than 60 years ago and passed the tradition to his children, who established Philly's Seafood in 2000 at the Port of Palacios.
A crew member motions to another below in the boat's hold as they work to unload hundreds of sacks of shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico shortly after the boat docked in the Port of Palacios. The Philly's Seafood boat returned early because of mechanical failures, but spent a month in the Gulf since the season opened July 15.
Geraldo Ochoa and Lawrence Pena use hooks to remove bags of shrimp from the boat's hold and onto a conveyer belt as a crew works to move and process hundreds of sacks brought in from the Gulf of Mexico and into the Port of Palacios. From the Gulf to the table, the Philly's Seafood shrimp will go to a processor that packages it according to the company's specifications. The shrimp are then sold to a distributor responsible for supplying restaurants and grocery stores.
Regina Pena sits inside her office at Philly's Seafood, which overlooks the Port of Palacios. Established in 2000, Philly's Seafood is Pena's family business, and she is responsible for selling shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico by the company's fleet as well as buying Gulf shrimp from other shrimpers in the port. "The product basically sells itself,'' Pena said, remarking about the quality of shrimp caught off of Texas shores.
PALACIOS - The noon sun beat down mercilessly on the harbor.
The Gulf shrimp boat, the Christian G, bobbed gently at the dock as men jumped on and off, heaving 50-pound purple mesh bags of frozen shrimp onto a conveyor belt.
Edward Garcia, 81, sat alongside the conveyor belt, shielded from the sun by a tent erected to protect the shrimp. Surveying the frozen catch with a practiced eye, he leaned back and smiled , fanning himself so that his snowy white beard moved in the manufactured breeze.
Garcia, the owner and founder of the Garcia Shrimp Co., has been in the business since he was 13 years old.
The Garcia family has a healthy business, by all appearances. They have a deal with H-E-B, supplying fresh wild Gulf shrimp for the grocery chain's customers. Commercials featuring them regularly appear on television, showing Garcia shrimp boats hauling shrimp in from the Gulf. In the 32-second commercial, Edward Garcia's son, Kenneth Garcia, smiles and assures customers that if they want fresh, good-quality shrimp, H-E-B is the place to go.
"We have the strictest quality. This guy," Kenneth said, pausing to hold up a shrimp. "He ain't gonna make it."
Garcia founded Quality Seafood with sons Kenneth and Anthony in 1987.
They're savvy. They know how to market their product. They've expanded the business to encompass all parts of shrimping, so they can handle shrimp from the time it is hauled out of the Gulf until a restaurant serves it on a plate.
Still, the price of fuel, government regulations, and the fact that fewer and fewer people look at shrimping as an industry they want to work in are all challenges they face.
Despite all of their efforts, the family must tackle the same obstacles of all Texas shrimpers.
Across the harbor, Garcia's daughter, Regina Peña, 45, sat in her office talking about her family's history in the shrimping business.
"It was just in his blood. Anybody that's a shrimper, you've got to love it because it's hard work, and it's hard to be away from your family," Peña said.
A petite woman with large brown eyes and a penchant for wearing three-inch heels, she works in her office, overlooking the blue, glittering water of the harbor in Palacios, buying and selling shrimp through Philly's Seafood, one of the many arms of the family business.
She glanced out the window, quiet for a moment as she looked out at the water.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she said.
Peña got into the family business about 10 years ago. Peña's 4-year-old son, Daniel Phillip Peña, died in a go-cart accident. When Peña was looking for a name for the company, she decided to call it Philly's, after her son.
"When you lose someone you love, you don't want people to forget that person," Peña said. "We were raised with a good work ethic, but it made me work even harder because I wanted people to be proud of it, to say his name."
She had been a stay-at-home mom for a couple of years when brother Kenneth asked her if she'd be interested in becoming a shrimp buyer and seller.
She agreed, founding Philly's Seafood, and quickly finding herself elbow deep in the business, hawking shrimp to Houston seafood restaurants out of the back of her Suburban.
Soon, she had a regular fleet of customers eager for her product.
"If you have a good quality product, people will look for you," she said, smiling.
As she talks about shrimp, her brown eyes light up.
"A good shrimp doesn't stink. It smells like the ocean," she said. "It's a beautiful smell."
Marketing the future
Peña recently had a meeting in her office, calling together shrimpers and buyers and sellers.
She, her cousin, David Aparicio, and shrimpers and shrimp buyers in the area sat down on a Tuesday morning to sip mimosas and discuss how to turn Gulf shrimp into a marketable commodity, a byword for quality, a way of branding their product and making it different from the shrimp delivered by the Chinese, the Koreans and other international shrimpers.
"Shrimpers in China can pay their people a dollar and a bowl of rice and sell the shrimp for the same price we sell for. I can't compete with that," Aparicio observed while the others in the room nodded in agreement.
As they sat together, the problems they grapple with every day came to the forefront.
They talked about turtle excluder devices. All boats, whether they shrimp in the bays or the Gulf, are required to have this government regulated device on their nets. The TED, as it's known, is intended to keep sea turtles from drowning in the nets, but shrimpers have complained for years about a device that they see as just a hole in their nets. If the TED on a boat doesn't meet with regulation requirements, the shrimp boat owner is liable for a sizable fine and the catch is forfeited.
"You get one fine like that, and it's like the boat is history," Aparicio said.
Peña, the only woman in the room aside from the receptionist, steered the subject toward branding.
"The question is how do we make Gulf shrimp more than just a commodity," Peña asked the room. Fifty years ago, more than half the shrimp in the U.S. market was caught in the Gulf. Now, that number has plummeted with more than 90 percent of the shrimp being imported from international markets or bought from shrimp farms.
"If we don't do something about this, we won't be able to preserve this commodity," she said. The others nodded, faces furrowed, thinking.
"Those working are in the industry because they want to be in it. They've been through hard times - hurricanes, high fuel prices, high interest rates, government regulations - they've been through it, the ones still in it are the ones who really want to be," Peña said.
A lifetime businessman
Edward Garcia started more than 60 years ago, a 13-year-old deckhand armed with little more than a third-grade education and the fire of his own ambition.
He learned the business, inside and out, and worked his way up, supporting a large, growing family of 13 children and still managing to buy boats, to go from being a deckhand to the owner of a shrimping company.
As the business grew, he brought his family into it. His brother Chencho started shrimping, too. As their families grew, the brothers brought their sons into the business. As soon as they were old enough, they all worked on the shrimp boats, learning the business from the bottom up.
"We were kids, but if you worked hard you got paid really good. If you worked like a man, you got paid like a man, and if you didn't work, you didn't get paid," Aparicio said.
Aparicio didn't intend to go into the shrimping business. He majored in accounting in college and planned to work in an office crunching numbers.
He was starting his first internship in Austin when he found out what accountants made. Already a little homesick for his family and the sight of the water, he changed course, came home and went into business with his daughter.
The entire family business is connected, but each part of the business is divided to keep them safe from lawsuits. Maritime laws make litigation dangerously easy, Peña said. If the boats were not incorporated separately, one lawsuit could cause them to lose the whole business. Still, the whole family works together to make sure their endeavor stays afloat.
Tough times for shrimpers
They face a lot of challenges.
Aparicio has an office for his company, Anchor Seafood, just across the bay from Peña's. It's a wood-paneled room, with framed pictures of his boats. He has been in the business a long time, and he's thinking of retiring when his youngest son finishes school.
"There's always going to be shrimping, but I don't think you'll see the numbers in boats," Aparicio said, leaning forward in his office chair. " If you go down south to Port Aransas or Aransas Pass, that used to be one of the biggest shrimping ports. You go over there now, and there's maybe five boats. You go over to Freeport, and Freeport was another big one, and there's maybe 10 boats there now. There used to be literally hundreds."
The American appetite for shrimp and seafood in general has exploded in the past few decades. Aparicio thinks it's because people tend to equate eating seafood with eating healthy. The Gulf can't supply the need anymore, and in recent years international markets have filled the gap.
"I'm not going to blast the foreign countries because we need the shrimp that comes from them, but people need to know where their shrimp really comes from," Aparicio said, his face suddenly lined with frustration.
About 30 percent of the catch on each boat goes to the crew, he said, while other countries are selling their shrimp for the same price to the same market and paying their crews a lot less.
"I'm not saying our crews don't deserve it because I was out there, and that's a bloody dollar. You work your butt off for it, but it's hard to compete," he said.
At the beginning of August, Aparicio and his brothers sent 12 boats into the Gulf.
They had to come up with the money for fuel, about 13,000 gallons per boat at about $3 a gallon, adding up to about $500,000 spent on fuel.
Most companies have to borrow some of the money required to fuel their boats. It's a gamble. If the season is bad, if shrimp prices are low, the companies are faced with the unsettling reality of not being able to pay their bills.
"We could do it without credit. It'd just be a lot tougher," he said.
About four years ago, when the recession was at its height, shrimpers were having a bad season. Fuel was $4 a gallon, shrimp were selling for $2 a pound, so shrimp boats were staying in the docks.
The company wasn't making payments on the boats, and if the banks hadn't been willing to work with them, if the fuel companies had been unwilling to give them a line of credit for fuel, the business might have been in trouble.
"It was awful. You go home and toss and turn, try to sleep. We still worked a little and made just enough to get by," Aparicio said.
There is also the problem of finding young people to take over the business.
Aparicio and the rest of the family are always keeping an eye out for people who want to really learn the business, but they have employed a number of people on their boats who come in on work visas from Mexico.
"People here just don't want to work the way they used to," he said. It's not the kind of job you can pick up with a couple of weeks or a couple of months of training.
"If you just hired somebody off the street that had never been on a boat and sent them out in the Gulf, they'd never make it ... it takes years to learn this job," he said.
Reaping the harvest
Back on the docks, unable to lift bags because of recent back surgery, Edward Garcia opted to run the conveyor belt from his chair. Even in the shade of the tarpaulin erected over the conveyor belt, he paused every so often to wipe away the sweat beading his brow.
Garcia's grandson, Ken Garcia, 20, worked with the rest of the crew, hefting 50-pound bags from the belt onto cargo crates.
The boat had come in early that Thursday morning after malfunctioning in the Gulf.
Ken has worked in the family business since he was a kid. It's something all of the grandchildren do, working on the shrimp boats or in some other part of the business after school and on their summer vacations.
Garcia called his grandson early that morning to tell him a boat was coming in early to be unloaded.
"You going to be there?" Garcia asked.
Ken, a student in San Antonio, sighed a little.
"Yeah, I'll be there," he said. By 9 a.m., he was driving toward Palacios. By lunchtime he was unloading shrimp.
Despite the malfunctioning, the boat was packed full of shrimp when they pried open the hatch to the icy hold on Wednesday morning. Plumes of fog roared out of the ice cold freezer.
Losing future generations
Garcia has made a point of including his family in his business and giving them the chance to join it if they want. Ken was raised around the business, but he doesn't think he'll join it after college. He's been working all morning, and as he pauses, wiping away sweat with the sleeve of his shirt, he looks tired.
"No, I don't think so. I've had enough," he said, shaking his head.
The family has been successful so far, but Peña hesitates when considering whether she would want her daughters to join the business.
"I tell them to find something they love and to do that," she said.
But she won't be quitting. Even in the face of so many changes to the industry, Peña has a steely-eyed optimism about the future. She sees the glass as half full, because the people who love it - people like her - aren't going to give up.
Sitting in her office, she can't tell what the future will bring, but she's ready for whatever it brings. She turned her head slowly, taking in the blue water that stretched out into the Gulf farther than her eyes could see.
"This is our heaven," she said. "This is what we love, and we're going to fight to stay in this business."
Continue Reading: PART ONE: Gulf shrimpers recall a dying way of life