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Fishing for Dollars

While most fish species are thriving, some segments of the gulf fishing industry are gasping for air.

By Eileen Mattei

To survive as a shrimper these days, you have to get creative.

Brownsville shrimp boat captain Carlton Reyes sent one of his six trawlers to Tampico, Mexico, to load up with 30,000 gallons of diesel in January. Even with expenses, the fuel cost about $1 per gallon less than in Texas and made shrimping economically feasible. At the Brownsville Shrimp Basin, Reyes split the fuel between four boats and sent them to trawl deep gulf waters for concentrations of shrimp. "I told them they better not come back until they run out of fuel," Reyes said.

The future of Texas' offshore commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico depends on many factors beyond the professional fisherman's control. Rising fuel costs, cheap foreign imports, bycatch issues and labor shortages have beached many boats and fishermen.

The Texas Legislature established the goal of maintaining a healthy gulf ecosystem that supports recreational fishermen and provides economic viability for commercial fishermen. It has not always been easy reconciling the two.

Texas laws and Texas waters reach 9 nautical miles into the gulf, where federal waters and federal regulations begin. Commercial boats navigate a sea of rules related to net sizes, seasons, size limits, bycatch reduction devices, total allowable catch, trip tickets and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on-board observers.

The viability of commercial fishing in the gulf comes down to a matter of populations, human and marine. More and more people equipped with efficient fish-catching tools want a share of the gulf fish pie. Yet even with stable fish populations, the growing number of people fishing in the gulf translates into fewer pounds for every participant. Is each participant willing to take a smaller pie slice, to share a limited resource?

"Without a doubt, certain members of the fisheries industry feel like they have been regulated harder in the past 10 to 15 years," says Robin Riechers, TPWD's Coastal Fisheries Science and Policy director. Regulators rely on estimates of species abundance and population trends to manage and enhance the gulf fisheries. Among the notable successes is the program to buy back inshore shrimp licenses, which has been credited with capping the overall fishing effort. This allowed more shrimp to escape to the gulf and reduced bycatch of other organisms. A sustainable shrimp population is a major factor in a healthy coastal ecosystem.

The natural world is anything but static, however, and efforts to keep the gulf healthy must reflect the ecosystem's cycles and changes. Environmental factors impacting fish stocks range from droughts and decreased fresh water into bays to agricultural runoff that creates dead zones in the gulf.

According to Trends in Texas Commercial Fishing Landings 1978-2001, released in 2004 by TPWD Coastal Fisheries Division, "long-term trends in total (Texas) seafood landings remained nearly constant over time, fluctuating between 51 and 68 million pounds per year" in that 20-year period. (This includes bay species not addressed here.) In 2006, 41.6 million pounds of shrimp and 5.6 million pounds of gulf finfish were landed at Texas docks.

Shrimp

The Brownsville/Port Isabel shrimp fleet, Texas' largest, numbered about 320 only five years ago. Now, it's dwindled to 130 to 140 boats. Texas licensed 1,127 gulf shrimp boats in the 2006–07 year, compared to 3,680 a decade earlier.

"It's a perfect storm," explains Gary Graham, marine fisheries specialist in Brazoria County who works for Texas Sea Grant, a Texas A&M University program that supports marine research and outreach. "Shrimping has had high increases in operating expenses, and, at the same time, the price of product has gone down. In addition, you have all the regulations placed on the industry and that makes it tough. In the last five years, we have seen a tremendous exodus from the shrimp industry, primarily because of economics."

Each shrimp net costs about $750. The excluder devices that allow fish and turtles to escape cost almost as much as the net. A trawler carries between eight and 10 nets equipped with the required TEDs (turtle excluder devices) and BRDs (bycatch reduction devices). The extra gear doesn't earn shrimpers a nickel and generally reduces the amount of shrimp caught.

But use of the TEDs was instrumental in the Kemp's ridley's astounding recovery. Twenty years ago, shrimpers pulled in three to four pounds of bycatch for each pound of shrimp. (Back then, Port Isabel shrimpers donated their bycatch of squid, whiting and red snapper to poor families, according to Tony Reisinger, Cameron County marine extension agent for Sea Grant. He estimated each boat distributed about 2,500 pounds a year to the community.)

BRDs more than halved bycatch from 1998 to 2001. Then the NMFS ruled that shrimp trawlers had to reduce bycatch by 74 percent of 2001 levels. The latest data documents the shrimpers' success, with bycatch declining each 2007 trimester: down 84, 79 and approximately 82 percent.

Nevertheless, Graham came to Brownsville to explain additional gear changes proposed by NMFS.

"If we're taking care of it, why are they adding more gear?" asked Reyes, president of the Brownsville-Port Isabel Shrimp Producers Association. "According to their statistics we don't need to reduce bycatch more. If you have a criteria we are meeting, why are you having us do more?"

Although fewer shrimp boats in the gulf means increased catches for the remaining trawlers, the outlook for shrimping as a livelihood and a way of life remains bleak. Palacios Port Director Tony Rigdon said that in January 2008, only 123 gulf shrimp trawlers claimed Palacios as home port, 56 fewer boats than two years ago. "It doesn't look good, and it's getting tougher. One of the guys told me that he had a boat go out for 30 days. It came in with a sizeable catch, but by the time he paid the crew and expenses, he was $17,000 in the hole." A good catch is 6,000 pounds in the winter and 18,000 pounds in the summer.

Texas shrimp landings in 2006 were valued at $100 million, but the economic impact was probably triple that, counting seafood processors and distributors and fleet suppliers. In short, the shrimp are out there, but it may no longer be economically feasible to go after them.

Menhaden

Known to bait buyers as pogies, menhaden are caught commercially for use as a protein source in animal feeds and also as a source of Omega-3 fish oil for human consumption. Menhaden are harvested from Texas state waters by purse-seine-pulling trawlers primarily owned and operated by Omega Protein. The fish are landed at processing plants in Louisiana, which also process menhaden from other gulf states' waters.

The menhaden industry uses spotter aircraft and other innovative methods to reduce bycatch, and is considered one of the world's "cleanest" fisheries, with bycatch estimates of 1 to 4 percent.

Jerry Mambretti, TPWD Ecosystem Leader for Sabine Lake, has documented that 50 million pounds of 3- to 5-inch menhaden on average were caught annually in Texas waters between 1999 and 2003. Variations in annual landings are usually caused by environmental changes (droughts, hurricanes, temperature) that affect recruitment of the menhaden, but rising fuel costs and labor shortages impact this fishery, too.

This year, Texas Parks and Wildlife proposed a precautionary annual cap of 31.5 million pounds of menhaden, which is the average of harvests over the past five years.

"By setting a cap, we don't do harm to that industry, but we give a clear signal we don't want it to expand in state waters," said Larry McKinney, former TPWD Coastal Fisheries Division Director. "We want to preserve that fishery for ecosystem support in the future."

The industry believes the cap does harm them. According to Omega Protein spokesman Toby Gascon, the company has harvested menhaden from Texas waters for more than 50 years without any detrimental effect, and it has no expectations of expanding the Texas fleet.

Robin Riechers, TPWD's Coastal Fisheries Science and Policy director, says the cap will ensure that the fishery does not further expand in Texas waters, so the bycatch and the other ecosystem impacts will remain at the current level. He said the pre-emptive move is an ecosystem approach to resource management rather than crisis management, a situation other fisheries have found themselves in because they waited too long.

Finfish

The value of commercial gulf finfish (snapper species, amberjack, shark, yellowfin tuna, etc.) landed in Texas ports in 2006 was $11 million. The economic impact of recreational saltwater fishing in Texas was $1.8 billion last year, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

The commercial red snapper fishery remains controversial, exacerbated by the fish's slow reproduction cycle. Gulf commercial fishermen, who have been blamed for a dearth of fish prized by recreational anglers, may have been unfairly singled out.

In 2004, Science magazine published results of a comprehensive analysis comparing saltwater recreational and commercial landings for a 22-year period. Florida State University biologist Felicia Coleman noted that Gulf of Mexico recreational anglers accounted for 64 percent of the landings of overfished species such as red snapper and grouper.

New federal rules limit the commercial take for the entire gulf to 2.55 million pounds and impose an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ). The IFQ is a form of dedicated, limited access which allots a fixed share of the Total Allowable Catch to each user of the resource, based on historical landings by the fishing vessel.

Every vessel with a commercial permit for gulf reef fish must operate a Vessel Monitoring System and must notify the NMFS Office of Law Enforcement at least three hours before landing so they can be inspected at a registered location.

Advocates for commercial fishermen and shrimpers keep a very low profile after years of being cast as villains, according to Richard Moore, director of the Galveston County chapter of Pisces, a shrimp industry group. "They've all taken a pretty good hit," he said, between fuel costs, cheaper imported seafood and lower quotas. "Fishermen still target red snapper, but they take any species they can legally."

Unlike other species under pressure, the commercial fisherman can think and figure out ways to overcome barriers to his survival. Some are deciding to stop participating in the fish game altogether and earn a living elsewhere.

Is the gulf healthy enough to support commercial and recreational fisheries? Some experts say yes; others say no. But robust fish populations are no longer the main indicator of a strong commercial gulf fishery. The global market, operating costs and regulatory compliance strictures will be the key factors in determining whether Texas' commercial shrimpers and fishermen can survive the storm.

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