Fishing the Bottom Waters BY PAUL JENNINGS THE BAY SHRIMPERS OF TEXAS: Rural Fishermen in a Global Economy. By Robert Lee Mari!. , University Press of Kansas, 1995. 304 pages. Cloth $35.00; paper, $17.95. ON SATURDAY NIGHTS, Houston’s Richmond Avenue is alive with low-slung sports cars, cruis ing the strip and filling the parking lots of the restaurants and nightclubs lining the street for miles. Life is good: the stock market is setting records, mutual funds are hot, and no matter who is in power in Washington, a new round of tax cuts appears certain. Here on the strip, in clever reconstructions of Mexican cantinas or beachside crab shacks, the rising stars of oil companies, banks, and stock brokerages celebrate their success around tables strewn with platters of seafoodredfish, flounder, crawfish or crab, accented by piles of fresh, sweet, Gulf Coast shrimp. This is nature’s offering to those able to weather the worst financial storms with their soup bowls turned rightside up. But to the men and women who make their livings harvesting the shrimp from the bays and inlets that fringe the Texas coast, nature is less reflexively generous. Stylishly mocked by the faux-funky restaurant settings, the work of moving shrimp from the bay waters to the dining table is as it has always been: backbreaking, dirty, and monotonous. In the great foodchain of the nation’s fisheries, Texas bay shrimpers occupy one of the lowest rungs, working tired and ill-repaired boats that must hug the coast, while powerful gulf shrimp boats, equipped with the latest electronic gear, range hundreds of miles in search of big strikes. Bay shrimpers are fiercely proud of their skills as fishermen, but over the past decade, lower shrimp prices and increasingly stringent fishing regulations have meant a steady decline in their standard of living. On average, bay shrimpers in Texas earn less than twenty thousand dollars annually, although a handful make as much as forty thousand dollars a year. Roughly forty percent of the families have incomes at or below the poverty line, and the average amount of education for a shrimper is eleven years. To make ends meet, many Paul Jennings is a freelance writer based in Houston. work “off-boat,” in blue-collar minimumwage jobs, such as clerking at local convenience stores. Only one percent of shrimpers say they have health insurance. In his latest book, The Bay Shrimpers of Texas: Rural Fishermen in a Global Economy, Robert Lee Maril continues his series of books examining life along the Texas Gulf Coast, which began in 1983 with Texas Shrimpers: Community, Capitalism, and the Sea, and continued with Cannibals and Condos The Poorest of Americans Living on the Edge of America ate professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, has himself worked several stints as a deckhand on the shrimp boats, and his personal experience combined with a standard sociological approach makes The Bay Shrimpers of Texas his most engaging book. When he examines the lives of the bay shrimpers, Maril finds a group of workers being steadily marginalized by a combination of forces over which they have little control. Like farmers, forced to sell their products at prices dictated by an economic cartel that stretches from the local elevator operator to Wall Street speculators, bay shrimpers find their prices determined by the so-called “Brownsville Bid”: the price offered by a handful of big shrimp processors based in Brownsville, and thus highly vulnerable to price-fixing schemes. All along the Gulf Coast, the price paid for dockside shrimp seldom varies by more than a few cents from the level bid in Brownsville, making it virtually impossible for shrimpers to use competition between bidders to market their catch at a higher price. Maril also notes the rise in shrimp imports over the years, from countries spending millions of dollars to develop high-tech shrimp aquaculture facilitiesoften with the aid of U.S. investors. Thailand, for example, has increased its export of shrimp to the U.S. from fourteen million tons in 1977 to one hundred million tons in 1991. Shrimp imports now account for roughly seventy percent of the U.S. market, and shrimp prices, when adjusted for inflation, actually fell by about one dollar per pound in the 1980s. Maril estimates that in recent years, shrimp imports have resulted in the reduction of Texas bay shrimpers’ incomes by as much as sixty percent. But from the shrimpers’ point of view, the principal threat to their livelihood comes not from declining shrimp prices over which they have little control anywaybut from the direct interference in their day-to-day working lives by fishing regulations. In a recent survey, more than half the respondents blamed existing laws and law enforcement officials for their declining economic status. From the news headlines, one might presume that the new laws are the results of lobbying efforts from environmental groups, but Mari! instead describes many of these regulations as offspring of a powerful coalition of economic forces: sport fishermen, beachfront developers, Gulf shrimpers, conservation groups, and petro-chemical interests. Each of these groups has an agenda for Texas coastal areas that is more or less at odds with the continuing existence of the bay shrimping industry. According to Maril, Gulf shrimpers are especially prone to view bay shrimpers as a nuisance, and are eager to shift as much of the regulatory burden as possible onto the backs of their economic rivals. In 1985, these forces succeeded in moving the regulation of the Texas shrimp industry from the legislature to the Parks and Wildlife Department. The bill, which passed despite a filibuster by Corpus Christi Senator Carlos Truan, resulted in the bay shrimpers losing what little political influence they previously had exercised over shrimping regulations. According to Maril, bay shrimpers “have been reduced over a period of years to a labor force with little political clout….In the vital game of state and federal governmental policies…Texas bay shrimpers have been big-time losers.” For many shrimpers, this lost of control over their working conditions is centrally symbolized by the requirement that they their nets, which sparked heated protests in a number of Gulf ports in 1989. Maril estimates that the use of TEDs has a relatively minor but still measurable effect in lowering productivity for the shrimpers. Of course, shrimping itself is hardly environmentally benign: dragging a net over miles of bay bottom disturbs wide swaths of marine habitat, and results in the capture of more than four hundred pounds of “trash” fish for every hundred pounds of marketable shrimp. Shrimpers, however, do have a direct economic interest in maintaining the biological viability of Texas’ coastal waters, and Maril found a sizable minority of shrimpers who said they were 28 FEBRUARY 23, 1996
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