Fleeting Fortunes: Shrimpers work hard as season nears end - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Fleeting Fortunes: Shrimpers work hard as season nears end

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Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2019 3:00 pm

On an early September morning, the crew of shrimp boat Hermosa Cruz worked steadily to unload the last of their shrimp onto the boat docks behind Zimco Marine.

After 40 days at sea, a few hours work unloading their catch was all that separated them from a week on land. Then it was back on board for another stretch.

In Texas, the peak of the commercial shrimp season is July 15, when state waters in the Gulf of Mexico are officially opened, until around the end of October. The industry operates year round, however, with boats moving from Texas to Louisiana and Florida.

“We are very important obviously to the coastal communities. Anybody you talk to down here in Brownsville, they know someone who is on a shrimp boat or used to shrimp. So it’s really embedded in our culture down here,” Texas Shrimp Association Executive Director Andrea Hance said.

Once, the industry made the citizens of Port Isabel and Brownsville rich and provided jobs in a multitude of side industries from diesel engine mechanics to restaurants serving wild-caught Gulf shrimp.

In the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, a man who owned a few shrimp boats could spend his last dollar and know that the next boat’s haul of shrimp would rebuild his fortunes.

“Every time a boat came in they made thousands of dollars,” local author Rudy H. Garcia said. He’s co-author of the upcoming book “Shrimp Tales” about the shrimp industry in Port Isabel and Brownsville.

However, low shrimp prices, rising fuel costs and scarcity of workers make turning a profit much harder than in the past.

Now, Hance estimates that there are only 550 gulf shrimp boats still operating in Texas. Between Port Isabel and Brownsville there are only around 150.

“We’ve declined by about 70% over the last 25 years,” Hance said.

Rufino Vargas, who started as a “header,” taking the heads off shrimp, knows the difficulties of the job. “It’s hard. It’s a hard job,” he said. The 50-year-old plans to work just five more years before retiring.

“I had enough. I’ve already got enough money,” Vargas said. This month he estimates he’ll take home about $16,000.

Experienced shrimpers like Vargas are hard to replace. Rig men and captains can easily make five and six figures, respectively, each season when shrimp prices are good.

Headers, the entry-level job in the industry, are usually paid less and might take home only a few thousand dollars. A header can work his way up to captain, but new workers have been scarce.

“If you analyze the workforce, the captains, the boat owners, they’re aging. ... So we have some captains out there that are 70 or 80 years old and there is just nobody taking their place,” Hance said. The industry has stabilized over the last decade, but a full comeback doesn’t seem likely. “We’re just trying to continue to keep putting Band-Aids on it to try and just keep our head above water.”

Despite this, for some the end of trawling for shrimp seems like an unlikely prospect.

“The shrimp is going to continue to spawn every year. It’s going to continue to go out into the Gulf and if nobody goes out there to net it and catch it and haul it in ... the shrimp is going to be out there,” Garcia said.

dcathey@brownsvilleherald.com

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