Shrimp Boat Projects: Gone Shrimpin’, 2012

This post comes to you from Shrimp Boat Projects

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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