First catch of sea­son for shrimpers: worry

Oil spill may cur­tail ac­tiv­ity, bring wave of Louisiana crews

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Sarah Port­lock

HOUS­TON — Texas shrimpers concerned about what the BP oil spill means for them are pre­par­ing for what could be a shaky sea­son and watch­ing the hori­zon for longer-term changes that could bring more shrimpers from neigh­bor­ing Louisiana.

The com­mer­cial brown shrimp sea­son opened Thurs­day night, but state wa­ters might be closed if oil spreads to Texas, whether slowly or with a push from a hur­ri­cane. Un­fish­able wa­ters are creep- ing to­ward the Texas state line, forc­ing more boats into a smaller area, and shrimpers face ner­vous cus­tomers who now won­der whether Gulf seafood is safe.

For the time be­ing, fewer small out-of-state boats will prob­a­bly be join­ing the Texas shrimp fleet, but shrimpers and wildlife of­fi­cials say that could change.

Many have fielded calls from shrimpers and fish­er­men ask­ing about li­cense avail­abil­ity and state laws, ap­par­ently look­ing for op­tions if the Louisiana oil spill clo­sures be­come long-term.

“If they sus­pect that the fish­eries are go­ing to be closed for a long pe­riod of time in Louisiana and they want to

con­tinue to shrimp as a liveli­hood, they may be look­ing to see what the op­tions or op­por­tu­ni­ties are to re­lo­cate to Texas to fish,” said Lance Robin­son, di­rec­tor of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart­ment’s coastal fish­eries di­vi­sion.

Texas has sev­eral shrimp­ing sea­sons, but brown shrimp reach their most valu­able size this time of year and are the most lu­cra­tive. Sci­en­tists are pre­dict­ing an abun­dance of them this year, but the over­all catch will likely be lower in part be­cause of the oil spill, said Roger Zim­mer­man, a Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion lab di­rec­tor in Galve­ston.

Prices this year have been higher than last year’s, said Craig Wal­lis, who has been shrimp­ing for 35 years out of Pala­cios. Dock­side prices jumped to $5.10 per pound for medium-sized brown shrimp this week, up from $3.50 in April. Last year, shrimp were go­ing for $2.50 per pound, he said.

Fed­eral per­mits al­low fish­er­men to trawl in wa­ters nine miles or more from Texas’ shore but not to sell in-state.

The num­ber of li­censes avail­able in Texas has been capped since 2005 for con­ser­va­tion pur­poses, and lapsed li­censes are not reis­sued. Out-of-state fish­er­men who want to sell shrimp in Texas or fish within nine miles of the coast need a state li­cense, but the only way to get a new one is from an ex­ist­ing li­cense holder. Cur­rently, there are 651 res­i­dent and 123 non­res­i­dent li­censes is­sued in Texas.

To hold onto the li­censes, ex­ist­ing own­ers must re­new by Aug. 31, and some Louisiana fish­er­men — busy with oil cleanup and cash­strapped from fish­ing bans — have been con­tact­ing the Texas Shrimp As­so­ci­a­tion to ask if their Texas li­censes will still be valid if they don’t re­new them this year, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Wilma An­der­son said.

Hous­ton-based Texas game war­den Maj. Wil­liam Skeen said he hasn’t seen any per­mit trans­fers yet.

“We’re not aware of any yet, but it is an open mar­ket where that can hap­pen,” he said. “We’re think­ing that there might be some of that.”

When Joel Davis heard his 83-year-old fa­ther-in-law was con­sid­er­ing sur­ren­der­ing his Texas li­cense be­cause of his age and the cost of con­tin­u­ing to do busi­ness, Davis had an­other idea: sell it through on­line clas­si­fied ads sites in Gulf states.

He has got­ten a half dozen calls but no tak­ers. He plans to re­post the ad soon.

“I specif­i­cally didn’t put a price be­cause I didn’t want to freak peo­ple out and I want to be ne­go­tiable,” Davis said af­ter he con­sulted bro­kers and scouted prices of other li­cense sales. “If you’re se­ri­ous about it and you’ve got a big boat and you’re try­ing to come over there, it’s the cost of do­ing busi­ness.”

Davis told in­ter­ested callers the price is $10,000.

Cost might be a big bar­rier pre­vent­ing Louisiana shrimpers from head­ing to Texas, shrimpers say. Ev­ery year as sea­sons open, large shrimp­ing boats move from state to state in fed­eral wa­ters and stay out for weeks, freez­ing their catch and re­turn­ing to a home port to sell. But that re­quires fuel, food, ice and crew costs, which can add up quickly, said long­time Louisiana shrimper Kimberly Chau­vin.

“Peo­ple just don’t have that kind of money right now,” said Chau­vin, whose three boats were among the first hired to help BP with the oil spill cleanup.

David J. Phillip AS­SO­ci­AteD PreSS

In the Galve­ston Bay town of Kemah, John Vu read­ied his shrimp boat this week be­fore the start of Texas’ com­mer­cial brown shrimp sea­son, which could see an in­flux of out-of-state shrimp boats.

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