First catch of season for shrimpers: worry
Oil spill may curtail activity, bring wave of Louisiana crews
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.
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.