A Shrimp Tale

Vernon Bates and Weecho Salinas have been dragging their nets in Matagorda Bay for decades. But these days they’re tangling with state regulators and watching profits plunge, which is why their way of life could soon be dead in the water.

October 1996By Comments

“BOY, I ENJOY THIS, EARLY IN THE MORNING,” Vernon Bates declares as he gazes up at the rash of stars that sheds the barest light on his trawler, which is plowing east toward where we might expect to find the sun in an hour or so. The 67-year-old shrimper sips his coffee, then makes a vague gesture toward the sky. “Last fall, up to the northwest over there, I saw the space shuttle on its way to Florida,” he says. “A single white stream, with a tail on it that must’ve been five miles long. Man, that was something.”

At the moment, nothing is visible but the eerie glow of the South Texas Project nuclear plant on the western horizon, the inky expanse of Matagorda Bay all around us, and farther out by the channel, a procession of tiny lights. Observing the latter, Vernon says, “The Vietnamese get out here pretty early.” He adds, “They work hard,” then hollers over my shoulder, in the direction of the deck, “Hey, Weecho! You ain’t fallen overboard out there, have you?”

The 73-year-old deckhand, Weecho Salinas, sits atop an ice chest, sucking on a cigarette and scowling. “He and I hardly talk to each other at all,” Vernon chuckles. “And when we do, we pretty much tune each other out.”

Compactly built, square-jawed and sharp-eyed beneath his wire-rimmed glasses, Vernon  is oblivious to the wobbling of his trawler atop the choppy water. His face bears a few splotchy scars from overexposure to the sun, and his hands are gashed and sandpaper-rough, with fingernails that appear corroded. Otherwise, the hard life of seafaring has left him with no infirmities. There is a sure, centered way about his posture, revealing in turn most of what you need to know about Vernon Bates—that he is reliable, honest, and stubborn as hell.

Vernon has been dragging his nets across Matagorda Bay for nearly half a century. By consensus, he is the best bay shrimper in Palacios, which is second only to Corpus Christi statewide in yield of bay shrimp and, in terms of annual grosses, among the 25 biggest overall shrimping ports nationally. Vernon has consistently reinvested his hard-earned profits in both his boat and the business he co-owns with seven other shrimpers: Gold Coast Seafood, one of the many Palacios fish houses where shrimpers dock and sell their product. That he has staked almost everything he has on the shrimping trade seems, at first blush, like a prudent investment. Texas shrimpers are responsible for about 25 percent of the nation’s 300 million to 400 million pounds of shrimp production annually. The industry contributes half a billion dollars to the Texas economy each year. It is our state’s most lucrative fishery, and the 450-mile Texas Gulf Coast accounts for more than 90 percent of total statewide production (the remaining 10 percent being aquaculture, or farm-raised, shrimp). At any given time, there are as many as 7,500 shrimpers on the Texas Gulf Coast, far more than anywhere else in America. Not surprisingly, then, state officials are very interested in what a shrimper like Vernon Bates does, how and when he does it, and how successfully. Vernon has learned not to interpret this interest as a sign of support.

Conjure up the mythic Texan and the strapping image of the West Texas cattleman leaps to the fore, while the barnacled and sun-scarred old mariners of the Gulf Coast remain unsung. But Vernon Bates is as much of the water as the cowboy is of the land—and like his West Texas counterpart, he works in virtual isolation, loving the solitude as well as the vastness and mystery of this uncluttered realm. Certainly he has never caught a break from the government—unlike the cattlemen, who were bailed out during the Depression—and would just as soon the bureaucrats leave him alone. But such is not to be. The water, as well as the shrimp that dwell there, falls under governmental authority. And though the immense popularity of shrimp among American consumers (who ate 674 million pounds of shrimp in 1994) continues to increase as beef consumption continues to decline, practitioners of the trade such as Vernon Bates remain not only politically powerless but imperiled. We love our shrimp but, it would seem, couldn’t care less about our shrimpers.

Particularly embattled are the bay shrimpers like Vernon, whose nets repeatedly drag against the bay floors, disrupting the bottom habitat, “which has to have an environmental impact,” says Gene McCarty, the coastal fisheries director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but the extent of the impact is unclear. Some 80 percent of what their nets capture is “bycatch,” including blue crab, sand sea trout, and Atlantic croaker. Much of the bycatch is already dead by the time it is flung back overboard, which presumably will have long-term consequences in the estuarine food chain—though the damage can be only speculated about at this point. The remaining 20 percent of their catch is shrimp, primarily the juvenile brown shrimp that dwell in the shallow waters. The harvest of young shrimp has long made state fishery officials nervous, since it stands to reason that the practice will eventually cause a drastic reduction in the shrimp population. The overfishing of the bays, caused by the tremendous increase in bay trawling over the past twenty years—corresponding with the influx of Vietnamese refugees to the Gulf Coast in the wake of the Vietnam War—has inspired a particularly vicious cycle. As a recent Texas Parks and Wildlife report puts it, “shrimpers are fishing harder to catch smaller shrimp that are worth less in value, forcing shrimpers to fish even harder. This is a formula for disaster for the shrimp fishery in Texas.”

And so the bay shrimpers have caught it from all sides. The environmentalists have accused them of ensnaring alarming numbers of endangered Ridley sea turtles—a preposterous overstatement, most everyone now agrees, but the bottom line is that as of 1990 all bay nets had to be equipped with turtle-excluder devices, or TEDs. The sport fishermen, galvanized by the well-financed Gulf Coast Conservation Association, in 1983 successfully lobbied to ban the net fishing of game fish such as red drum and speckled trout, one result of which is that the shrimpers can no longer sell the above-mentioned game fish that are caught in their nets. Today the Parks and Wildlife Department, seemingly carrying the water for the sport fishermen, is making noise about forcing bay shrimpers to fit their nets with BEDs, or bycatch-excluder devices, to reduce the number of netted croaker—“The most often landed and taken home recreational fish,” Parks and Wildlife’s McCarty says tellingly. In the meantime, the state already instructs the bay shrimpers as to when they can fish (mid-May to mid-July, mid-August through December, and the first of February to mid-April), how long they can fish (from thirty minutes before dawn until two in the afternoon during the spring season, a few hours more in the fall, and from thirty minutes before sunset until thirty minutes before sunrise in the winter), how they can fish (one net only, no greater than 34 feet wide), how much they can catch (a six-hundred-pound daily limit in the spring and no limit in the fall and winter), and by restricting the number of trawler operator licenses last year, how many of them can fish. McCarty says it’s too early to tell whether the so-called “limited-entry” restriction will ease the state’s concerns about the bay. If not, then more-drastic measures will be taken during the next legislative session—when, if the past is any indication, the poorly organized and hopelessly independent bay shrimpers can be expected to exert as much political influence as the average prison inmate.

Things look bleak indeed for the bay shrimpers, though the state’s concern for the juvenile shrimp lacks any empirical weight and whatever environmental intrusions the shrimpers commit seem far less alarming than the fragile economic conditions of our state’s shrimping communities. (Matagorda County regularly suffers one of the ten highest unemployment rates of the state’s 254 counties.) It would be nice if the state spent less time regulating shrimpers and more time addressing the American market’s growing reliance on imported aquaculture shrimp from Thailand, Ecuador, and China, which has driven down the price of Texas shrimp and forced the shrimpers to work harder for lower wages. And, of course, it would be nice if the Gulf shrimpers—who, as the moniker indicates, do their fishing several miles farther out in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico—joined lobbying forces with the bay shrimpers. But pigs will fly before this happens, according to Willie Younger, a marine-education specialist with the Texas A&M extension service: “The Gulf shrimpers say the bay shrimpers catch all the babies, and the bay shrimpers say the Gulf shrimpers catch all the mamas before they can spawn. They’re at each other’s throats all the time.”

Besides, the Gulf shrimpers constitute a different breed. Their boats are much bigger, their expenses and their grosses are higher, their crews are larger, and they stay on the water for days or weeks rather than hours. The state, by voicing its disapproval of the overharvesting of juvenile shrimp in the bay, has implicitly encouraged shrimpers to do their work in the less-restricted Gulf. Several years ago, Vernon considered running a Gulf boat. But he was dissuaded by the prospect of bossing people around and fretting over how much of the catch the deckhands stole (a chronic problem on Gulf boats). He’s a fisherman, not a foreman. So Vernon Bates has stuck with his 38-foot bay trawler, from which he will fish until the state banishes him from the bay for good.

His is a rustic trade, marked by primitive tools and a reliance on inarticulable hunches. The trawler he calls the Faye B. (after his wife) was built in 1979; it is cramped and does not offer a smooth ride. The wheelhouse is outfitted with a radar unit, a depth finder, a loran navigational aid, and other such gadgets, but Vernon seldom uses them, says he doesn’t altogether trust them. Like Weecho and the CB radio, they are there to keep him company as much as anything else. Vernon doesn’t pretend to have it all down to a science. He knows that today’s wind will adversely affect the presence of shrimp, but he can’t explain why. Similarly, he knows that shrimp are more abundant when the moon is waxing; that’s just the way it is. When I ask him why we’re dropping the net at a particular spot, Vernon’s answer is, “’Cause that’s where I last found some shrimp and I ain’t found any anywhere else since then.”

What he knows is what he senses. He can hold a string tied to his try net (a small net that is lifted every few minutes to get an idea of the bigger net’s yield) and through his fingertips distinguish between the sliding movement of a fish entering the net and the kicking of a shrimp’s tail. As a quarterback envisions his pass falling into a receiver’s hands before it’s actually thrown, Vernon casts his net where he envisions shrimp tumbling into its womb of mesh. It is all a shrimper can do, since it’s folly to try to think like a shrimp, one of God’s dumbest creatures—and folly as well, paradoxically, to predict its elusive migratory habits. To succeed as Vernon does, one must know the feel of the bay itself.

This season has been a dreadful one for bay shrimpers. A late-winter freeze probably delayed the mating season, and the damnable drought has meant too much salt in the bay water for the young shrimp to abide. For once, state fishery officials aren’t blaming the bay shrimpers for the depleted stock, but that is small comfort. Nearly all of the Anglo shrimpers sat out the first couple of weeks of the season in May, asserting that there weren’t enough shrimp of appreciable size to break even against gasoline costs. Vernon didn’t look at it that way. You might have a few money-losing days, but as he puts it, “How much money can you make sitting at home and crying in your beer?”

Shrimping, says Vernon, is “all I ever knew, and I never really wanted to do anything else.” His father, Fred, began shrimping in Alabama at the close of World War I. In 1931 the Bates family moved by boat from the Alabama coastal town of Bayou La Batre to Palacios. Vernon was two years old then, and he picked up on the trade well before he was a teenager—as would Vernon Junior, who as a five-year-old would jump out of bed at three in the morning, when his daddy’s alarm clock would go off, and beg Vernon to take him along. Both Vernon Junior and Vernon’s younger son, Mark, are now veterans of the Palacios shrimping business, along with Vernon’s uncles Ted and Bob, his cousins Ted Junior and Cooter, and Cooter’s son Bud. In all likelihood, the Bates family’s newest shrimper will be Vernon’s eighteen-year-old grandson, Keith, who repairs his grandfather’s nets and is a shy but lingering presence at the fish house. Vernon personally hopes Keith will reconsider: “He’s got real pale skin,” says the grandfather, “and I just know he’s gonna have trouble with melanoma.” But as Vernon’s wife, Faye, says, somewhat wearily, “Once shrimping’s in their blood, you just can’t get it out.”

Other Palacios families share the Bateses’ passion. The Wallaces, the Kunefkes, and the Seamans have been shrimpers for generations, as have the two dominant Hispanic shrimping families, the Garcias and the Aparicios. Nowadays, names like Nguyen and Vu and Tran are frequently heard at dockside. Of course, less-tradition-bound free agents swarm the bay waters as well, and they are the ones most apt to contribute to the unfortunate stereotype of the shrimper as an uneducated, antisocial Gulf Coast drifter, wild-eyed and grimy in appearance, uncouth in speech, and usually reeking of sea rot and alcohol. The transient shrimpers are the quickest to brag, the first to complain, the most likely to be lurching about the dockside bait camps in the deckhand’s trademark white rubber boots with beer can in hand while the Vernon Bateses of Matagorda Bay are out dragging their nets. They belong to Vernon’s world only in the way that a playground basketball hack inhabits the world of Michael Jordan.

Vernon’s world, and that of the other Palacios shrimpers, changed almost overnight in 1976, when the first six Vietnamese families moved to Palacios. “Before they came,” he says, “as many shrimpers were getting out as were getting in, and things were pretty stable. Most of us could make an okay living.” But in short order, the six families were followed by dozens more, until more than six hundred refugees occupied the northeastern outskirts of town. They aimed to do in America what they had done back home, which was to shrimp. So they began to build boats, some as big as seventy feet, and they dragged double nets across the bay seemingly nonstop. “Usually you work an area in the daytime, then pick up your nets and give it a rest till tomorrow,” says Vernon. “But they’d stay out there for days, even weeks at a time.”

Coinciding with the arrival of the Vietnamese shrimpers, the number of shrimping licenses would nearly double between 1976 and 1983. The slices of the pie were getting smaller and smaller, and though it was not the refugees’ intent to drive the Anglo shrimpers out of the bay, the possibility that this might occur seemed of little concern to them. Instead, they kept to their own airtight community, objects first of suspicion, then of seething resentment tinged with racism.

Twenty years later, everything has changed while staying the same. The Vietnamese have stuck it out in Palacios, a fact that the Anglo shrimpers have learned to live with. The refugees for the most part remain in their enclave northeast of town. But their culture has added a welcome color to the coast, and their industriousness has earned the admiration of old-schoolers like Vernon, who decries “the Bill Clinton generation—spoiled, lazy, and no morals.” The Vietnamese shrimpers have raised a generation of children who, to no great surprise, dominate the honor rolls in the Palacios school district. Some of the Vietnamese kids will become like 28-year-old Thuy Vu, who was 8 when her family abandoned the Vietnamese village of Sao Mai and relocated to Palacios in 1976, cramming twenty refugees into a single mobile home. Thuy graduated from Palacios High School and thereafter became the business manager of her family’s shrimping business, headed by her father, Tu “Captain Tom” Viet Vu—though in Vernon’s assessment, “That girl’s the brains behind Captain Tom’s operation.” On the other hand, some of the Palacios-born Vietnamese will join gangs or hang out at the shabby bait camps, just like their non-Asian peers. Thuy herself says with a nervous laugh, “We worry that they’re becoming too Americanized.”

There are worse fates. One evening in the late seventies, an ordinary-looking man arrived in Palacios and met with the town’s Anglo shrimpers. He identified himself only as a Gulf Coast—area member of the Ku Klux Klan. “Y’all don’t have to do anything,” he assured them. “Just give us the word, step aside, and we’ll take care of things.” When someone asked the Klansman just how his mob intended to rid Palacios of its refugees, the man answered without hesitation. They would apprehend the Vietnamese Catholic priest, Joseph Phamductrinh, and drag the man known as Father Joe through town by means of a rope attached to a truck bumper—after, of course, tarring and feathering him.

Murmurs of approval were general throughout the room. Then Vernon Bates spoke. “It’s a bad idea,” he recalls having said. “I don’t want any part of it.”

The others had always looked up to the eldest Bates shrimper. They did so now. The meeting broke up, and the Klansman somberly took his business elsewhere. When I ask Vernon why he vetoed the tar and feathering, I expect him to profess his admiration for the Vietnamese work ethic and acknowledge that they worship the same God he does. But too much has happened to allow Vernon Bates to speak passionately on behalf of the Vietnamese. They now far outnumber the Anglo and Hispanic shrimpers in Palacios. Captain Tom’s fish house nowadays does business with more trawlers than any other fish house in town. And when Vernon sees their boats out in the bay so early in the morning, he suspects that they have been illegally dragging their nets all night. If bay shrimping is ever outlawed, it will be because the arrival of the Vietnamese and the subsequent overfishing of the bay have coincided with a 600 percent increase in landings of juvenile shrimp—a trend that Texas Parks and Wildlife ominously terms “ecologically unsustainable.” In these ways, the Vietnamese have made his life, and the lives of his lifelong friends, more difficult, and under those circumstances warm words do not come easily.

So instead he says, “I’ll tell you why I wouldn’t support it. Because word would get out, and I’d end up in Fort Leavenworth, and I’d never be out on the water again. That’s why.”

“PULL UP, WEECHO!” AS VERNON winches up the cables, the deckhand stalks over to the side of the trawler, tosses out a hook tied to a rope and with it snags the try net, which he hoists up to the deck. Sand crabs scramble out of the net and dance around his white boots. A jellyfish rolls out as well, which Weecho impales on his spade with a single stroke. He holds the creature up for a second, eyeing it with dull interest before tossing it from his spade into the ocean with a subtle flick of the wrist. Then he tends to the shrimp, of which there are few on this first try.

His cracked face and hands, his deeply stained clothes, his stooped posture—everything about Weecho has been shaped by his trade, which he has practiced for as long as Vernon has. There are no guarantees of upward mobility in the shrimping business, and poorly educated types such as Weecho tend to stay where they are: on deck, sorting and icing the shrimp, dumping the bycatch, picking the crabs off the net, scrubbing things down. “What he’s doing right now,” Vernon says to me, gesturing at his deckhand, “is all he knows how to do.”

Vernon learned this a couple of years ago, when he had a stroke while sitting behind the wheel. He gasped for Weecho to steer the ship and radio for help. The deckhand didn’t know how to do either. Fortunately, another boat happened by and radioed for a medical helicopter. Ever since then, Vernon has taken blood-thinner medicine and worried that he might not be so lucky next time. Still, dependability counts for something, and in the fifteen years that Vernon has used Weecho, the deckhand has never failed to be at the docks by four in the morning. For his labor, Weecho gets paid 20 percent of what the day’s catch is worth at the fish house.

When I ask the deckhand why they call him Weecho, he answers, in his gravelly snarl, “’Cause they got tired of saying my first name, Mauricio, so they just said Weecho.”

Vernon looks amused. He didn’t know that, never bothered to ask. Though Weecho cuts a comical figure and is much teased back at the fish house, his life is not a pitiable one. In Palacios he owns a small house (made smaller by the fact that he keeps his lawn mower in the front room so it won’t get stolen), and when the shrimping season ends in December, he spends his winters in Durango, Mexico, where his wife lives in a house that he also owns. Vernon and the other shrimpers speculate that Weecho lives like royalty down there, throwing his dollars all over town.

For now, the prince of Durango tosses the shrimp into a bucket while several dozen flapping seagulls monitor his accuracy. Up this close, the birds rapidly lose whatever aesthetic aura they possess on the shore. As if reading my mind, Vernon laughs and says, “When I went up to Austin to fight against one of the laws one year, I ended up talking to this lady from the Sierra Club or one of those organizations. She was saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to protect the seagulls, they’re such wonderful birds.’ I nearly told her, ‘Lady, have you ever had a seagull drop one on your head?’”

At eight o’clock, just half a mile from the mouth of the Colorado River, on the east end of the bay, the big net is winched in, and Weecho positions it over the deck and then loosens the rope. What falls splat to the deck looks like nothing so much as a mass grave: the pale bellies of hundreds of croakers, upturned crabs, silver eels, jellyfish, squid, and somewhere in there, a few hundred brown shrimp plus a couple dozen whites. Vernon’s nets have snared all manner of things in the past. Sharks and stingrays are common, and occasionally he’ll snag something he’s never seen before, like the forty-pound specimen someone at the docks told him was called a rabbit fish. (“You talk about good eating,” Vernon recalls.) Back in the forties, he and his dad caught a seven-foot-long, 515-pound jewfish. He has also dragged aboard an antique anchor, and once he found tangled in his net a three-foot-long rocket, which some federal officials snatched away from him and took to San Antonio. But all Vernon cares about is catching shrimp, and the first haul tells him that the bay is still fallow.

“Damn, there’s no shrimp!” Vernon grumbles as he stands over the tray where he sorts the browns from the whites. “What’d you do, Weecho, throw ’em all overboard?” He drags four more times over the next six hours—across the oyster beds near Mad Island, around the surveying platforms, and beside the red flags where the pipelines lie newly buried. He pulls out all the stops, but while some of the hauls are more successful than others, the total is nowhere near what he had in mind. Finally, at ten minutes before two, Vernon says, “Well, hell, we might as well just pick up. Ain’t got but ten minutes left, and there ain’t no getting around it, today’s just a bad day. Pick up, Weecho!”

The nets are winched up, and Vernon turns the captain’s seat over to me so that he can assist his deckhand. From the tug against the wheel, I can tell that the wind is still pulling hard to the west. But the day is otherwise beautiful: a crisp azure sky, the sunlight shimmering against the surface of the malty bay water. After a while I hear Vernon standing behind me, munching on an apple that he has peeled with his pocketknife. I imagine that he’s fuming quietly, figuring all the things he could have done differently, counting all the odds stacked against him and the other shrimpers—wondering, perhaps, just how crazy a man has to be to stay in such a business. When we return to the fish house, Vernon will learn that he has netted less than one fourth the legal limit. He will also learn that the big buyers have forced the price of shrimp down today from $1 to 85 cents a pound.

Vernon Bates finally speaks. “Well,” the shrimper says, “we didn’t catch much. But we sure had fun, didn’t we?”

He is positively beaming. “I mean, it beats the hell out of sitting around the fish house,” he adds. Which, in turn, beats the hell out of sitting around at home. And tomorrow morning I’ll arise to find a stiffer wind than today’s, but when I go to the basin where his trawler is docked, I’ll see only an empty space. Vernon and Weecho and the Faye B. will be out on the water, dragging the net, having fun while it lasts.

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