“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