PORT LAVACA — Most days after trawling the bays and channels around Port Lavaca and his hometown of Seadrift, Jose Martinez brings in about 200 to 300 pounds of shrimp, which the longtime fisherman said is barely enough to make a living.
But on Wednesday, his boat, the Wayward Lady, was laden with about 850 pounds of shrimp when he docked it behind Scully’s Sports Bar & Grill.
Martinez didn’t know whether to attribute Wednesday’s haul to Tropical Storm Nicholas, which passed through two days earlier, churning up the coastal waters, or simply to divine intervention. But after 39 years in the unforgiving shrimping industry, he knows to appreciate his good days out on the water, even if he doesn’t expect them to last.
“If it was like this every day, then we could make a little bit,” said Martinez, who wore a chain with a golden shrimp around his neck and the customary white fisherman’s boots on his feet.
Last year, the pandemic shuttered many of the restaurants that buy Gulf seafood, sending demand plummeting. This year, more restaurants are open, but local shrimpers say they are still struggling.
The challenge can partly be attributed to the heavy rainfall this spring, which disrupted the spawning process and may have flushed shrimp out of the bays, one biologist said. But the bigger problem, fishermen say, is the combination of several long-term trends — competition from foreign imports, development of coastal ecosystems, rising diesel prices and government crackdowns — that have driven thousands out of the industry.
Lifelong fisherman Russel Cady, of Seadrift, said 2020 was his worst year ever in the fishing business.
This year, the springtime rains decimated the oysters in local bay systems, he said. As local shrimp populations rebound, Cady has been shrimping out of Port Aransas and Corpus Christi — something he seldom would have done in the past.
“Years ago, when it was a lot of boats and everything, the shrimping was always good in San Antonio Bay, Espiritu Santo Bay, Matagorda Bay,” Cady said. “It’s been a very strange two years — it’s been really crazy.”
Leslie Hartman, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife’s Matagorda Bay ecosystem leader, said this spring’s heavy rains inundated local bays with fresh water, which tends to depress brown shrimp populations.
While white shrimp are typically less affected, seafood buyers are tightening their belts and skipping fresh Gulf shrimp for cheaper, lower-quality imports, leaving Texas shrimpers with few options.
That’s been an issue since the 2000s, when diesel prices spiked from $1 to $4 a gallon and pond-raised shrimp from Asia flooded domestic seafood markets, Hartman said.
“There’s not a heck of a profit margin on shrimp,” Hartman said. “No industry can absorb that kind of difference.”
While economic trends may have driven some of the challenges faced by local shrimpers, fishermen said federal and state officials share some of the blame.
For years, fishermen have had to comply with mounting regulations, outfitting their nets with devices intended to reduce bycatch, abiding by strict daily catch limits and size requirements — and obtaining one of the coveted licenses that allows them to actually catch shrimp in the first place.
Measures like these are intended to reduce overfishing and sustain marine wildlife populations, but they can have unintended drawbacks.
For instance, Cady, who is critical of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s management of coastal ecosystems, said bycatch deposited into local waters can actually help sustain crab and shrimp populations.
And enforcement by game wardens and the Coast Guard can be onerous, fishermen said. Seadrift environmental activist Diane Wilson, whose family has fished in the area for generations, said she knows local fishermen who have been ticketed multiple times per day over minor violations. And Martinez said he has been pulled and had his boat inspected for no good reason.
“They’re intimidating people,” Martinez said. “I know my rights.”
Port Lavaca fisherman Jose Manuel Rodriguez said industries lining the bays deserve more scrutiny, too. In his 36 years fishing local waters, Rodriguez claims the waters have become less hospitable to shrimp as a result of industrial pollutants.
“This was one of the best bays,” Rodriguez said. “Now, it produces almost nothing.”
One thing is clear: Whatever the cause, Texas’ shrimping industry, which at one point accounted for about a quarter of America’s annual production, according to a 1996 Texas Monthly story, is in a tailspin. Just a decade or two ago, thousands of shrimpers called the state home, Cady and Wilson said. That Texas Monthly story put the number at 7,500.
These days, that number is likely in the hundreds.
In decades past, the dock behind Scully’s where the Wayward Lady docked used to be filled with shrimping boats, Rodriguez said. Today, there are plenty of vacancies.
Still, Rodriguez plans to keep trawling the bays he calls home, no matter what.
“If I sell my boat, everything I own, who will hire me then?” he said. “It’s not easy to just leave — to take our license, everything we have owned for so many years, and throw it all away.”