Shrimp Boat Projects

Shrimp Boat Projects: Gone Shrimpin’, 2012

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We are just now emerging from the whirlwind of the 2012 bay shrimp season, a season that had us finally working as fulltime commercial shrimpers, selling our catch in new ways and learning hard lessons at an ever-quickening pace. Among these lessons is certainly the impossibility of blogging and shrimping… frankly it’s impossible to do anything else when you’re shrimping fulltime. With the season now behind us, we’re playing catchup and high on our list is catching you up….

The season that wasn’t

From one angle, we just wrapped up a season that was robust–  full of ups and downs, surprises around every turn, and bursting with new insight and experience on everything from work to seafood economics to regional ecology and weather patterns– but that doesn’t tell much of the story, especially when you’re actually trying to make a living from this, as we were this season. From another angle, this may have been the strangest, most unpredictable, and ultimately most frustrating and disappointing shrimp season on Galveston Bay in memory. And no one, not even those who have worked these waters for the last 40 years, seems to know why.

Perhaps the first clues to an odd season was the brown shrimp crop showing up early in the bay, more than month before the bay season officially opened on May 15. Then there was the spike in jumbo white shrimp in the lower Galveston Bay, washing in from the Gulf for nearly six weeks in May and June. Our restaurant buyers found themselves adjusting their menus to accommodate these fresh beauties that would normally not show up till late summer. Following this, we were again thrown for a loop in mid-Summer when the white shrimp showed up en masse, at a time when the bay season normally has a month-long break from July 15- August 15. “Big Season” for bay shrimping officially commences on August 15 per Texas Parks & Wildlife policy, but biology was working off a much different calendar this season.  After scheduling time off at what should have been downtime in the season, we scrambled to get back to shrimping in early August barely catching what became the high point of the season. By late August, things were already in a downturn leaving most shrimpers wondering if that was it for the season or if we’d see another wave of shrimp moving through the bay. Aside from a handful of unsuspecting days, September was in fact a very frustrating month for shrimping as the shrimp harvest was not only small in volume but also in count at a time when the shrimp should have been at their biggest size. The shrimp were so small for most of September that most shrimpers couldn’t even catch legal-sized shrimp on a typical day. And so the season ultimately petered out for us, as well as many other shrimpers on the bay, in early October even as we kept wondering what the next northern wind or full moon might do to affect the shrimp.

 Introducing Discovery Shrimp & Oyster Company

It was inevitable that to earnestly participate in the local seafood economy, we had to develop a commercial enterprise to help us sell our catch and a branded identity that could help distinguish our efforts. Behold Discovery Shrimp & Oyster Co. ! When you think of Discovery Shrimp & Oyster Co., think FRESH  WILD-CAUGHT SEAFOOD FROM GALVESTON BAY. And never frozen. Since May, we’ve been working to create a new supply chain for fresh shrimp from Galveston Bay by working with the chefs at several great restaurants in Houston and by running a stand at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.

Brown Shrimp Season

In the late spring/early summer, Brown Shrimp show up on the bay and constitute the primary early season crop  of shrimp. Though sweet and very tasty, at this point of the season the brown shrimp are very small in size (think 100-120 count /lb.), not exactly middle-of-the-plate shrimp. We had no idea how we would find a market for shrimp this size unpeeled and head-on (who wants to peel a shrimp that small?). Enter some very talented, adventurous and resourceful chefs looking to work with the most seasonal local ingredients and we began to find a new market for sweet Brown Shrimp in Houston. In the hands of these chefs, including Chris Shepherd (Underbelly), Benjy Mason (Downhouse), Justin Yu (Oxheart),German Mosquera (Roots Bistro), and Hori Horiuchi (Kata Roberta), a series of exciting brown shrimp recipes began to find a place on menus around town. If you’ve never tried a sweet brown shrimp cooked whole, just wait for next season!

 Texas City and Bayport Ship Channels

The ship channels at Texas City and Bayport became our go-to spots for shrimping this season, adding a new level of complexity to this endeavour, expanding our bay geography, and allowing us to catch larger quantities of shrimp. There is not a real clear answer for why there are more shrimp in these channels, there just are. Although it’d be a safe bet that it’s related to the channels being the only places on the bay where you see depths in excess of of 8-10 feet. These are man-made cuts through the bay meant to facilitate the global shipping trade, not shrimping, but that’s exactly what they do.

Less tricky to navigate than the big ship channel that runs from the mouth of the bay to the Port of Houston, but more tricky than the flats (the vast shallow areas where we shrimped last season) we graduated up to shrimping in the Texas City and Bayport ship channels. Still very different places to shrimp, the Texas City channel being in the lower bay, and the Bayport channel being in the upper bay, the season had us jumping from one channel to another as the shrimp stocks kept changing. While the channels differ in terms of geography, they both amounted to a significant uptick in intensity for our typical day on the bay. Whereas in the flats there are few rules for how and where to drag your net, the channels are governed by a specific set of rules and protocols adopted informally among shrimpers over time to insure that shrimping can coexist with the much bigger ships– tankers, container ships, tugs and barges– for which these channels are primarily designed. The rules also ensure that shrimping can coexist with itself, in other words, there’s a simple self-organizing system here that mitigates potential conflicts among shrimpers, dictating how early you drop your net in to start the day, where you shrimp along the channel, what direction you move and how far you are spaced from other boats. That’s not to say that conflicts don’t flare up on occasion. Any perceived deviation from the rules and you can be sure you’ll here it from another shrimper on the radio, as we did several times. But things typically get easily resolved and by the late summer we were calling out other shrimpers as much as they were calling out us. We actually started learning these rules back in 2011 as soon as we knew they existed, basically as soon as we learned we’d need to shrimp the channels to have any chance of making a profit in shrimping.

Welcome to Kemah

By the start of the big season on August 15, we made the decision to move the F/V Discovery to a new home at the Kemah Shrimp Co., right under the big bridge in Kemah. Much closer to the Bayport channel than our previous home at April Fool Point in San Leon, this new berth offered us all kinds of advantages: less diesel needed to get from home to boat and from dock to shrimping grounds, we could now sleep in till 4am instead of our previous 3am departure, and we could unload our catch right at the dock. Less easy to measure are all the intangibles that come with docking next to many of the same shrimpers we pass each morning on the bay; the informal tips on how to set our rig better; the reports on who’s catching what; the advice on when and where to find shrimp; and as the season petered out, a place where we could commiserate on what should have been a better season.

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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A ‘Typical’ Day

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Actually, there is no such thing as a typical day for us. Nothing is ever the same on the bay. But our second season of shrimping got going back in mid-April and we have settled into somewhat of a routine. Now thanks to the photography of our friends David Feil and Oopey Mason,  we . . . → Read More: A ‘Typical’ Day

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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Turning the Tide, or at least trying to

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The shrimp fleet at Hillman’s Seafood on Dickinson Bayou. One of the few remaining visual cues that shrimping was once a thriving industry on Galveston Bay.

We just got back from Foodways Texas‘ annual symposium event, an incredible gathering that brings together a real variety of people whose work and interests connect them to food as a cultural force. As we learned in attending last year’s symposium in Galveston, this event ends up being much more than a discussion of food traditions and regional culinary practices (although that would probably be pleasant enough). What this event fosters is a rare conversation that engages the key questions of regional culture both broadly and specifically– what is it? why does it matter? where does it come from? what are people doing to appreciate it? It’s a true interdisciplinary discussion that requires a real cross-cutting knowledge.

We were honored to be asked to give a talk about our project within this year’s symposium theme “Preserved”, but humbled by the challenge of this.  We always acknowledge that we are not trying to save the shrimping profession, we are not trying preserve its culture as an artifact, and frankly, we don’t even like to freeze the shrimp we catch!

Of course preserving something, does not need to imply that it becomes static. And with this, we could acknowledge that what we are interested in preserving are the conditions–political, economic, social– that once allowed primary producers (farmers, ranchers, as well as shrimpers and other commercial fishermen) to earn a decent living in confidence, as these ways of working in direction connection to the land are the root of dynamic regional culture. Or alternatively, how do we preserve regional culture as something that is dynamic and not rendered as the content of static museums?

To help us answer these questions, we had met Priscilla Weeks last spring just as we were embarking on our project. An environmental anthropologist working with the Houston Advanced Region Center (HARC), Pris has done a ton of research over the years on coastal communities, both on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, which tries to assess the threats to fishing-reliant communities and the consequence of declining fishing industries, not just economically but also socially and culturally. Her research, both in the data she’s accumulated and the frameworks she’s developed for understanding the situation, really help clarify that the decline of small-scale commercial shrimping here on Galveston Bay is not unique. It’s part of much larger pattern and really, very little is being done to turn the tide of this. We thought that if we could offer any food for thought to a gathering of food-minded people, it would be to both explain what is exactly at stake in losing the work of bay shrimping and so many other small-scale food production industries, and what we believe needs to happen to truly reverse the trend.

So we asked Pris to join us in making this case and we all went up to Austin to present a talk entitled “The Work of Gulf Coast Regional Food Culture”, which was a small nod to a great essay by Wendell Berry entitled “The Work of Local Culture” where he explains that the existence of local culture relies on the accrual of knowledge that comes from working on the land and dedicating yourself to a place.

With this introduction, here’s an excerpt from our talk (the part delivered by Zach):

“Well so the state of the Shrimp Fishery is clear, it is in rapid decline and in all likelihood will end as a way of life with the next generation of shrimpers not joining the fleet.

We are here today because we believe that embodied in the demise of the shrimp industry is the demise of regionally specific cultures in the face of global capitalism.   With this demise we are not just losing one of the major parts of life that makes it interesting ( “variety as the spice of life” if you will) but also our identities and the potential for an ecologically responsible future.  We are interested in preserving the specificity of gulf coast culture and its potential for a better future.

How do we do this?  What is Gulf Coast culture?  Who gets to define it?
We are more clear on what we do not want to do.  We do not want to save a defined cultural identity. Cultural preservation should not be limited to the practice of curating the cultural attitudes, behaviors, and artifacts of a subjective definition of the region.   This way of looking at culture creates static museums where cultural artifacts lose their meaning to everyday life and become relics of an imagined past.  It turns what we value into commodities to be sold back to us. It allows others free reign to essentialize and degrade what we value.

For defining culture we are interested in culture as an idea, understood through examining our relationship to the land.  Gulf Coast culture is then the relationship to the specific landscape of our region with all of the problems and beauty that we express onto this land.   We do not want to preserve this either as we do not want more refineries or wetlands lost.  Instead we want to preserve the potential for a better future, a richer culture, one that maintains and strengthens a relationship with the land.

We believe that the only way to preserve this potential for culture, as some of you might, is through food.  Not by preserving recipes or even ingredients but by saving small scale food production. We believe that if we want an ethical, sustainable, regionally specific culture we need to preserve the ability for people to have a way of life producing food through a connection to the land.  These are the ways of life that make regional culture specific and unique and with their connections to the land they hold the potential for an ecologically responsible future.  These ways of working are threatened from all directions as you have heard today about shrimping and they need to be preserved.

The local food movements and organic food movements make claims towards a connection to producers but these movements do not have the potential to save regional culture as a living and dynamic part of modern life. This is great work don’t get me wrong.  It has been the only way we could keep shrimping.  But these movements are not enough to save regional culture for two reasons:

First of all the profits and markups of these new markets are not making it to primary producers. The markup is at the distributor and at the restaurants. In addition these markets are tiny only allowing a few people in at a good price. With a little competition the price falls out again. The farmers, ranchers, and fishermen,  I know who have been able to gain access to these markets still just barely hang on.  As a primary producer going organic and/or local does not shield you from global commodity markets.

Secondly these movements have the potential to turn the remnants of these ways of life into more sanitized versions of working class cultures.  (Eric and I being prime examples) A culture connected to the land should be able to thrive on its own not just through the benevolence of consumers. We want culture to be dynamic, participatory, and just.  To do this we need to recreate the circumstances for small scale primary producers to be able to make a living from their connection to the land.

The demise of these ways of working is not natural, there are specific policies, laws, and enforcement priorities that are ending these ways of life.   No one but huge conglomerates turning food into industrial commodities are able to survive.  Food prices are artificially low, with subsidies and the true cost of production being pushed off onto future generations through the destruction of our environment and onto our healthcare system.

Saving the uniqueness and potential of regional culture is a political issue.  It will take organizing and advocacy to save these ways of life as a part of our cultural heritage and future.     For gulf shrimping to be a viable fishery we need to change and/or enforce international trade policies and our own laws.   This will include higher tariffs for subsidised shrimp farm imports, the banning of cancer causing chemicals in shrimp imports, and full accounting of the environmental degradation of these farms.  Then domestic wild caught shrimp can compete on an even playing field.

So in conclusion we ask for the focus of those who value the variety of regional cultures to focus their efforts towards changing the policies that are destroying the ways of life of primary producers.  Doing this will help to maintain the conditions to continue creating distinctive regional cultures and the potential for a  deeper relationship with the land.”

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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CSPA Quarterly: On Art & Agriculture

The seventh issue of the CSPA Quarterly is now available!  Cultures around the world rely deeply on both local creativity and agricultural activity. Creative culture and agriculture are inextricably linked, and both are facing challenges as we globalize. This issue contains stories from public projects, visual installations, film, and theater, and examines local vegetable farming, cotton and rice paddy industries, and shrimpboating.

Featured artists include Susannah Mira, Thomas Buttery, Jeremy Pickard, Hui Ling Lee, Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser.

http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/328247/follow

looking backward, looking forward

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We are happy to report that we survived the first year of Shrimp Boat Projects.

Right before the holidays we had the pleasure of retracing our steps, so to speak, as we moved the F/V Discovery from its most recent home at April Fool Point back to the boatyard, the place where we began restoring our boat and now its winter berth. And we had the distinct pleasure of doing this in a fog so thick that, for the first time, we were beyond sight of land. Pea soup does not do this fog justice. We could have been anywhere. But, in a way, this trip exemplified virtually all of the expeditions we’ve made thus far. Each time we set out, we encounter new challenges, gain new knowledge, and build on what we already know.

As it was, we were definitely on Dickinson Bayou, the tributary to Galveston Bay that has became our umbilical cord of sorts in the last year. April Fool Point sits at the mouth of the bayou and the boatyard sits a few miles up the bayou. So we got to know this bayou a bit over the last few months as we first swam in it to cool off after long hours at the boatyard, and then as we began piloting down to the bay for our first days of shrimping, and then begrudgingly back up the bayou when the boat faltered and needed servicing.

As we piloted the boat back up the bayou one more time, the fog forced us to move ever so cautiously. Our trusty GPS chartplotter was our lifeline, helping us stay on course and in the channel of the bayou. Of course, it told us nothing about the course of other boats around us, anchored barges that might be in our way, or many other possible obstacles, so we stood watch on port and starboard sides. Apparently, everyone else knew better than to be on the water in this kind of fog, as we saw no other boats, save for a few barges appearing like hulking islands through the mist.  We heard later that a cargo ship and tanker ship had fallen victim to the fog, colliding near the Texas City dike. We moved at a snail’s pace up the bayou on eerily calm water,  laboring to remember the various landmarks and nuances of this route which, with its many hard turns, general shallowness and narrow channel, can seem treacherous even in perfect visibility.

Of course, every landmark we passed seemed like of ghost of its former self: the odd horseshoe island maintained as wildlife sanctuary by the Galveston Bay Foundation, the bridge at Rt. 146, the fleet of shrimp boats at Hillman’s Seafood, the beginning of the long stretch of flat marshland that define the upper reaches of the bayou, and the giant utility towers that seem to rise up from nowhere.

It was the boatyard that was most welcome landmark to finally see again, marked by its many cranes rising up in the distance. Not only was this the end of our trip, but also a refuge for the boat deep up the bayou where we knew it would be more sheltered from the weather while allowing easy access for a few improvements we need to make over the winter. We piloted the boat ever more cautiously on water flat as glass into the narrow slot John had generously afforded us right between the massive barge he’s nearly finished building and the tug boat that’s his latest project. Despite this awkward slip and the very shallow waters, we managed to pull off our best docking job yet, redeeming ourselves for all of the miscues and botched attempts of the past few months. Now with the boat in its winter berth and the shrimping season on the d.l. for a while, we are regrouping, reading, reflecting and finishing our planning for 2012 and beyond. Stay tuned!

 

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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Going Back to Galveston*

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*in deference to the essay by M. Jimmie Killingsworth and the photographs by Geoff Winningham in the book Going Back to Galveston

“THROUGH THE YEARS, THE MOSQUITO FLEET DOCKED HERE AMONG OTHER SHIPS. ENRICHING THE CITY AND NATION, AND BLENDING ASIAN AND EUROPEAN FISHER CUSTOMS INTO AMERICANISMS. THE INTERNATIONAL CUSTOM OF BLESSING FISHING FLEET IS OBSERVED YEARLY IN GALVESTON.”

- excerpt from the historical marker “PIER 19 MOSQUITO FLEET BERTH”  installed by the Texas Historical Commission at Pier 19 in Galveston.

We often meet people in Houston who think our project is happening in Galveston, Houston’s neighboring city to the south. We always let them know that the project is actually happening on Galveston Bay, not Galveston. This doesn’t always clarify things. “But you keep your boat in Galveston, right?” has sometimes been the next question. “Actually, we keep it in San Leon, which is a town on the bay, in between Houston and Galveston,” is what I find myself saying in response, which usually does the trick, even if folks don’t really know where San Leon is.

None of this is really very surprising. If we’re doing anything involving shrimping in this region, we might as well be in Galveston, such is the lasting historic connection between shrimping and place there. Galveston’s bay shrimp boats, popularly known as the Mosquito Fleet, still tie up at a prominent spot on the city’s harbor, just as they always have, it seems. There may be fewer boats these days, but they still command a large presence in the tourist’s gaze and share a well-trafficked area of public waterfront with museums, parks, restaurants and seafood markets. It seems that not many other working fleets can claim that kind of real estate these days.

Over the summer, we got an email from some folks in Galveston who have revived the Galveston Island Shrimp Festival and Blessing of the Fleet (now called the Blessing of Da’Feet) for the last two years and were planning to do it again this year. And they wanted our help. Really? We weren’t immediately sure how we could help. Afterall, our boat was still sitting on blocks at the boatyard and we had no idea when we’d be launching, let alone learning how to catch shrimp. The latest humbling moment in a never-ending trajectory of humbling moments. But they thought the intent of our project might dovetail with their festival so after a lunchtime meeting in Galveston, we happily agreed to at least host a booth where we could share our project and perhaps some of the inspiration behind it. And maybe participate in their Gumbo Cookoff, fresh off our 17th place finish at the last Blessing of the Fleet cookoff in May. Participating in the festival’s boat parade and Blessing of Da’Feet seemed amazingly unattainable, and frankly we were still suffering from the letdown of the last Blessing event at the Kemah Boardwalk. Even if our boat was seaworthy and we were capable of piloting it the 2 hour ride to Galveston, would this Blessing be any more legitimate than the last one? (see our blog entry “Mixed Blessings” below for further reading on this.)

Photographs by Geoff Winningham, from the book Going Back to Galveston

What a difference a few months make.  By early September our string of boat problems seemed to be dying to a murmur, and if we squinted, it looked as if our boat might actually be ready for the parade and blessing. Not only that, but our longtime sentimental attachment to Galveston was more palpable than ever.

Houston and Galveston are both bookends to this region, but more than that they seem to represent polar ends on the spectrum of regional cultural ethos. On our occasional trips to Galveston, we easily succumb to all the qualities which make it not Houston: its slowness, its weathered patina, its inability to accept change, its textured landscape of so many visible layers of history. It was the original big city in this region, and while it’s port and economy may no longer rival Houston’s, the city still seems to sit more prominently at the region’s threshold, both historically and geographically, where the Gulf meets the Bay.  So the idea of going to Galveston, whenever we can find the time, always offers of a healthy dose of cultural resonance.

Just such a time occurred about a week before the festival when we drove down to Galveston to attend the required captains meeting for the boat parade at the Joe’s Crab Shack restaurant on Pier 19. With its faux-swamp-shack-meets-carnival-fun-house look and overpriced fried seafood, we had never had much urge to go to this place in a city full of great seafood joints. Yet, here we were, entering what always seemed to be the inauthentic stepchild of Pier 19. Under new ownership and newly rebuilt since being demolished by Hurricane Ike, the place has transformed itself in the last year. With free drinks and an eclectic crew of Galveston locals gathered on the restaurant’s deck, we quickly got over our hangups of the place and struck up a conversation.

By the time we left the captains meeting, we somehow managed to learn nothing about the upcoming boat parade procedures, our original reason for showing up. But we did met a couple friendly Galveston shrimpers who shed some light on the history of this parade. Apparently it was a community of shrimpers who organized the parade and blessing of the fleet for decades in Galveston, but more recently the City of Galveston assumed control of the event and it died 2 years later. We were participating in the second-coming I suppose. We also learned a great deal more about the typical routine of shrimping at the entrance to the Galveston Harbor, apparently the standard spot for Galveston shrimpers. Before long, all we wanted to do was to move our boat to Galveston.  It all just sounded so much more mellow, straightforward and more accessible than everything about shrimping in the mid-bay area where we are now. Well, nothing is really that straightforward for us, but it was easy for us to imagine that in this small community of Galveston shrimpers, with their one regular shrimping spot practically in view of the dock, everything would become easier. Driving back to Houston, reality of course set in, and we had to shelve our dreams of Galveston, at least until the actual boat parade the following week.

Chart by NOAA

On the morning of September 23, we departed San Leon for Galveston by shrimp boat, a day before the the parade. Though not terribly far (we can usually see the hazy silhouette of Galveston’s skyline from our shrimping grounds), the trip would have us navigate unfamiliar waters and more marine traffic than we’d ever faced, specifically at the mouth of the bay, where the Houston ship channel meets the Galveston ship channel meets the Intercoastal Waterway meets the ferry channel from Galveston to Bolivar. The nautical chart above hints at how congested this area can get. So we took our time getting there. We detoured to a shrimping spot near the Texas City Dike, at the encouragement of John from the boatyard. The spot had come to him in prophetic dream over the summer in which he saw us catching a massive amount of shrimp. A mythical honey hole or a true shrimp bonanza? We had to find out. As it would happen, reality was not on our side. Our try-net, never shy of prophecy itself (as it’s main function is to test the waters and tell us whether it’s worth dropping the big net in) quickly grassed up and it was clear there was no honey hole here on this day. We continued on our way.

Photographs by Stacey Farrell, before and during the parade.

As this story will attest, we did make it safely to Galveston Harbor and managed to pilot the boat into a slip at the tight marina on Pier 19, despite nearly clipping the stern of a docked charter boat starting to fill up with passengers. Once we could stand on the dock and appreciate that our boat was tied up at the site of many a Galveston postcard, it felt as if our boat had come home. Indeed, we would join the Mosquito Fleet, if only for a weekend.

The next day was climactic. We arrived early, about 4 hours before the parade, to hastily attach nearly 1000 feet of red, white and blue pennant flag streamers from bow to stern. Not only were we preparing for a parade and a blessing, but also a contest for best decorated vessel, and we thought we had an outside chance of taking that honor (and the prize money that would come with it). But we were mistaken. This was not the last parade we had witnessed back in May. It seemed that a greater number of shrimp boats had turned out this time– a great thing for the event, a terrible thing for our chances of winning the pageant. Virtually every boat seemed to be gunning for the top honors. Ultimately it was the Tiffany Leann II that would take the prize– just as it had back in May at the Kemah parade–with its over-the-top Vegas themed decorations, complete with Elvis impersonator, dancers and mega sound system. But lest we forget, this was still a parade of many boats, each adding something unique to the event, and that included us. We also got blessed, by a real Catholic priest standing at the bulkhead at Pier 21, as we passed the cheering crowds. It was a total thrill. Joined by a handful of friends on deck, we made a mental note to  invite even more people along next year to fill out the onboard celebration.

I’m not sure if it was just the fact that we were in Galveston, or the turnout among other shrimp boats that seemed impressive (given this was taking place on a perfectly good work day), but this parade and blessing felt very satisfying. Sure, it was still taking place in the midst of a big festival with throngs of tourists and not necessarily the local tradition of yesteryear, but this is the Galveston of today. People come to Galveston to reconnect with the past and its bygone traditions. I suppose that’s what we were doing too.

 

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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First Encounters

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These maps show the tracks of our first two weeks of shrimping on Galveston Bay aboard the F/V Discovery, at three different scales. The tracks are recorded by our onboard GPS chart plotter and then overlayed onto NOAA nautical charts and Google satellite images.

You might think that after 6 arduous months of restoring our shrimp boat, we might ring in the first day of actually shrimping with some of the pomp and circumstance that marked our christening of the F/V Discovery. But alas, this day came and went and that seemed perfectly fine and perfectly appropriate. But really, we had no say in the matter. On a typically hot morning in late August, we arrived at the boatyard and were greeted by John and Gary with a very clear message: “Y’all are goin shrimping today.” We may have not known it as we left the boatyard the night before, but they were absolutely right. The boat was nearly ready for use and we had been stubbornly laboring over painting details and deciding how and when to furnish the cabin. Those things could wait till later and they knew it. And we knew it. But we just needed the kick in the butt. And so, on an unremarkable day in late August, we embarked on something that seemed remarkable: leaving the comforts of the boatyard and finally steering our boat cautiously along Dickinson Bayou toward Galveston Bay with a boatload of excitement, uncertainty, anxiety and cautious optimism.

Our new schedule begins at 3:30am when we leave Houston for the 1-hour drive to San Leon. The early morning hours are justified by the profession: the law allows us to drop our nets 30 minutes before sunrise and it usually takes an hour or longer from the dock to get to a decent spot for shrimping. It’s not easy to adjust to these hours but the optimism of a new day is usually present when we set off from the dock. These images give a sense of the calm that often defines the bay at sunrise: (left to right) viewing another boat in the distance; the cables from our boat to our big net disapearring into the bay; Our ever-present avian neighbors on the bay.

The reality of our first encounters with the bay aboard the F/V Discovery were not so romantic. The first two weeks might best be called the Sea Trials as they seemed to involve equal parts shrimping and trouble-shooting. One might say that’s just the nature of shrimping, or any commercial fishing for that matter, constant problem solving. Really, there was no way of truly knowing if the boat was ready until we put it to the test, but we hoped that the kinks we were working out might at least go away for a while. We signed on Gary Jones, the welder and former shrimp boat captain who had already helped us put the boat back together, to be our captain and help us run the boat in the early stages. But even with an experienced captain, the problems we had to solve were probably inevitable. The giddiness of our first day on the water seemed a distant memory when we ultimately ended up back at the boatyard for an entire week replacing the seals on our transmission (and driving all over Houston to find the seals for our Tonanco 729D transmission).

Undeterred, we did get the boat back on the water after each hiccup, and have been able to piece together enough problem-free days to start developing a routine and the beginnings of an education born not from the boatyard but from these new encounters with the bay.

The maps above begin to document these first encounters. The black lines chart the routes we took over approximately 2 weeks of shrimping, and while they look like the maps of someone lost and wandering aimlessly around a new place, this is only partly accurate. The lines show us leaving from two specific places over this period, either the boatyard deep into Dickinson Bayou, or our new home at Captain Wally’s marina on April Fool Point in San Leon. The lines then show us motoring to various areas in the middle-upper areas of Galveston Bay… places where we hoped to find shrimp! Some of these places were guided by Captain Gary’s past experiences, some because we saw other boats working those areas, some because of hearsay at the dock or the fish house on previous days, and some just to try a new spot. In each place where we chose to drop in our net, the line on the map takes the shape of a squiggle or a loop and this is in fact the mark of the route a bay shrimp boat takes when dragging its big net: a primary goal when dragging the net is to keep it away from the wash of the propeller directly behind the boat (a deterrent to catching shrimp), which means we keep the boat in a constant turn. Thus the squiggle and the loop. And if it appears that a line just stops somewhere in the bay, we can blame that on our chart plotter getting turned off by mistake.

These maps are the beginning of us grappling with a geography that we are getting to know afresh and in a completely different way. As much time as we’ve spent around Galveston Bay, reading about Galveston Bay, talking to shrimpers and others familiar with the Bay, and going out onto the Bay in other boats, it appears that all of that was merely in preparation for the real education yet to come.

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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Welcome to San Leon

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Map reprinted from History of San Leon, Vol.1 by Alecya Gallaway (Left); Shrimp Boat Projects map of San Leon (Right)

“Why would I want to live anywhere else?” – Dusty Hill, bassist for the band ZZ Top and former San Leon resident

Not only is San Leon our favorite unincorporated municipality in Texas, it is now also the home of the F/V Discovery!

Long before we started this project, San Leon was our respite from Houston and a point of access to Galveston Bay. We came to eat shrimp and oysters at Gilhooley’s and the Topwater Grill, enjoy a cold beer at the Sunset Lounge and relax along the shores of the bay in a place that truly has an off-the-map quality, an end-of-the-road sensibility and a disdain for most of things that make typical small towns “typical”. The character of the place may be derived as much from its unique geography as its unusual history. At an event last spring in Galveston, Gator Miller, the local publisher of the Sea Breeze News, explained that San Leon, as we currently know it, was actually developed through a real estate promotion concocted by Galveston Daily News, in which subscribers to the newspaper were given lots on the peninsula. When subscriptions were cancelled, so were the lots. The net result is a town that apparently has no clear title to any of its lots, and consequently no chain stores or franchised establishments.  While the strip mall may be prolific in the larger Houston region, here in San Leon, it’s absence seems appropriate. The town is, afterall, on a peninsula, framed by the bay on three sides, and with just a couple roads leading in and out. This is not a place where you might end up by mistake. You must willfully choose to visit San Leon, and when you do, you will be rewarded.

And yet, despite all of the romantic reasons for spending more time in San Leon, it was for purely practical reasons that led us to dock our boat here at April Fool Point. Because the town is surrounded by the bay, we now have immediate access to the fishing grounds of the bay. And this geography also insures that we’re situated in a place that is strongly identified with what’s left of the shrimping and oystering industries on the bay. Our immediate neighbors include longtime bay shrimpers Dub and Johnny, a popular local seafood joint called the Topwater Grill, and Misho’s Oyster Company, perhaps the largest processor of local oysters on the bay. And our new landlord, Capt. Wally, the individual perhaps most identified with April Fool Point, harbors a lifelong attachment to the sea, and a virtual library of sea-faring stories from Galveston Bay, to his native Poland and everywhere in between. And he’s the owner of the Point’s namsake shrimp boat the April Fool.

The F/V Discovery in its new home at San Leon's April Fool Point.

We’re not sure how long the F/V Discovery will be in San Leon, a lot of that depends on us actually catching shrimp. But we’re pretty sure this town isn’t going anywhere. Like most good places on the Texas coast, it’s a resilient place that has picked itself up after each hurricane. Many of the places we frequent took a battering in Hurricane Ike, but they’re still here. So do yourself a favor, turn off the main road and come visit San Leon.

 

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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Making a Splash #ShrimpBoatProjects

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The process of putting the Discovery back in the water began with a traditional christening including the smashing of a bottle of champagne over the bow of the boat.

We are happy to report that after nearly two months of work out of the water, our boat is now back in the waters of Dickinson Bayou…and floating. Prior to the splash, Katy Goodman (Zach’s wife) delivered a rousing christening to an anxious audience of five people, capped with the ritual smashing of a bottle of champagne over the bow of the boat. Following the christening, we once again placed our faith in the boatyard’s trackhoe and John Collins who deftly lifted the boat off its blocks and rolled it back into the water over a couple strategically placed rollers (repurposed telephone poles). As we continue to work nonstop to get our boat ready for action, we’re looking forward to the next big event, actually shrimping!

 

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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Mixed Blessings #ShrimpBoatProjects

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Although historically a rite of passage for commercial fishing boats only, the annual Blessing of the Fleet on Clear Lake channel now includes both work boats and pleasure boats alike.

“The Blessing of the Fleet is an annual event that is practiced in fishing communities world-wide. As a genre, these blessings share several common traits: one or more priests perform the actual blessing; fishermen gather in their newly outfitted boats to receive the blessing; and family members unite in making whatever preparations are dictated by local tradition.”

- Betsy Gordon from her essay “Decorating for the Shrimp Fleet Blessing: Chauvin, Louisiana” in the 1991 issue of Louisiana Folklife Miscellany

Over a year ago, as we planned Shrimp Boat Projects, we anticipated the launch of our boat to coincide with the start of the Texas bay shrimping season and the annual Blessing of the Fleet on Clear Lake channel, a traditional ceremony marking the beginning of the season on the east side of Galveston Bay. Well, the bay shrimping season is now about a month underway in Texas and unfortunately we are still getting out boat ready for prime-time. Fortunately, our disappointment has been tempered by a growing eagerness to start shrimping as soon as possible. The boat is definitely looking better and better each day, so we should be shifting gears soon.

The Blessing of the Fleet happened on May 1st and although we couldn’t participate in this consummate public spectacle, we could watch it among the many folks leaning on the railings at the Kemah Boardwalk. Oddly enough, and we can only admit this in hindsight, our inability to participate may have actually been a blessing in disguise. As casual bystanders to the event, we gained the  critical distance to consider how dramatically this event has changed in its history and whether its cultural value is even still relevant to the bay shrimping profession.

We considered the evolution of the event as it relates to the the towns of Kemah and Seabrook which flank the channel where the blessing happens. In many ways, the evolution of this event mirrors the evolution of this place, from working waterfront to leisure waterfront, and from a varied assemblage of waterfront businesses owned by multiple individuals, to a singular destination owned by a single corporation. The event is still organized by the City of Kemah, but the event is staged on the privately owned Kemah Boardwalk, a mammoth-sized theme park owned and managed by Landry’s Restaurants, Inc., a Houston-based company. Although this public-private partnership has its benefits  (the boardwalk makes for easy and accessible viewing of the event), it also insures that the Blessing of Fleet is competing with several other events happening in close proximity. This year, the actual blessing was drowned out by the sounds of a party band playing Top 40 tunes for another audience nearby. Other signs of the event’s evolution are a dramatic shift in the participation of the shrimp boats, the fleet around which the event was initially conceived. Today, the Fleet that gets blessed is a varied group of work boats and pleasure boats, implying that the blessing itself has less to do with risks and perils of commercial fishing and more to do with the everyday hazards of boating in general.

From our perspective, it’s impossible to not see the evolution of the event as also a reflection of the bay shrimping profession itself. The small number of bay shrimp boats participating in the event are now not only getting paid to participate (authenticity is apparently not cheap) but also representing a profession on Galveston Bay that has diminished is size dramatically over the history of the event. For better or worse, the parade of boats that signified this year’s Blessing of the Fleet was actually one of the most graphic signs of the demise of an industry, the shifting of cultures and economies in this region, and a reminder of the reciprocal relationship between place and culture.

In the end, we feel ok to have not participated in this year’s Blessing of the Fleet. While we could certainly use all of the blessing we can get, we’ll hold out for a Blessing of the Fleet that renews the original significance of the event as a response to the fleet of working shrimp boats on Galveston Bay. What would this event look like? It’s simple: culture and consequence. This future event would restore the Blessing’s original cultural value by giving form to a fleet of working shrimpers on Galveston Bay that are diverse and not a monolithic community. It would also reaffirm the consequence of the event by better acknowledging the real risks and sacrifices made by working shrimpers and other fishermen alike. Could this type of event be re-realized? We think it could, but to do so, it will probably need to forsake the Kemah Boardwalk and embrace one of the few remaining places on Galveston Bay that still maintain a connection to the bay shrimping profession.


 

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

Go to Shrimp Boat Projects