Three seasons into this project and we finally made it to the annual Blessing of the Fleet event in Kemah– aboard our boat! Of course with the slow death of the shrimping industry on Galveston Bay the event will never again be the ritual that it once was, or was intended to be, but we’re here now so it felt good to participate (for more on the history of this event, see our earlier logbook entry from June 23rd, 2011). And with the official start of our third season shortly upon us, we can still use all the help we can get. So we dusted off the 1000ft. or so of flags from our last boat parade, invited a few friends for the ride and made an indulgent early morning drag of the net in the flats just to catch enough shrimp to feed our company. But in the end, we just don’t get blessed by a real priest very often, so we figured we better log this one.
We shared with you a found postcard from Texas City (above left) in a logbook entry back on March 28, 2011, well before we were working as fulltime commercial shrimpers. Now, just over 2 years later, fully entrenched in shrimping on Galveston Bay as a genuine livelihood, and with our boat tied up in nearly the same spot as the postcard view, we came to the odd realization that we have basically become this postcard.
It is actually only recently that we moved the F/V Discovery to the small shrimp boat dock at the Texas City Dike (above left), a fascinating earthwork designed to keep sediment from building up in Texas City harbor and the lower bay. At 5.3 miles long, and a mega destination for recreational fishermen, the dike is sometimes referred to as the world’s longest man-made fishing pier. As for the little shrimp boat dock, it feels like the last vestige of a once prominent shrimping scene here. Of course you could say the same about pretty much every place that marks part of the what’s left of the infrastructure of the Galveston Bay shrimp industry. From Kemah and Seabrook to San Leon, Texas City and Galveston, the traces of active working waterfronts of yesteryear are everywhere.
As with most of where this project has taken us, I’m not sure we could have predicted we’d be here now. It’s certainly no accident– the shrimp are here, and that’s why we are here too. But the precise turn of events that has allowed us to be here, to have access to the only dock left reserved for shrimp boats on the dike, was never scripted. In many ways we had to earn our spot here by meeting the right people and proving that we could actually catch shrimp! If you’re shrimping on the Texas City channel, there’s no better place to tie up your boat than right here where you are basically a stone’s throw from the channel. With only room for four boats at maximum, this little dock is precious real estate. It’s owned by Boyd’s One Stop, the most prominent bait shop in Texas City, and perhaps all of Galveston Bay, and the self-proclaimed “Live Bait Capital of Texas”. After Hurricane Ike swept through here in 2008 and wiped out pretty much every bait shop and dock on the dike, Boyd’s was the only shop allowed to rebuild a dock for its stable of shrimp boats. Places like Anita’s– the namesake bait shop of Anita Collins whose husband sold us our boat and became our boat-building mentor during our boat yard work on the Discovery– places that had long defined the dike as a hugely popular fishing destination were all erased from the landscape overnight. With the landscape forever changed, and with many of the shrimpers who made their mark here now gone, it seems that we have now become a small part of it’s next chapter.
Food leads to cities leads to innovation. So it makes sense that a conference calling itself Food, the City, and Innovation, and aimed at understanding this process would bring together a diverse range of people working at the forefronts of food culture from academics to entrepreneurs. We had the pleasure of being among this interesting company for the recent 2-day conference organized by The Food Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, an interdisciplinary program that “explores innovative approaches to improving our global food system. It promotes creativity and entrepreneurship by integrating science, technology and the study of the humanities (art, history, literature, music, philosophy).” Needless to say it was an appropriate place for us to share the perspective of Shrimp Boat Projects.
Presenting on a panel tasked with answering the question of how cities are building resilient food systems, our first answer was “they are not”. But we were a little more nuanced in our presented remarks, which we share with you below:
I’m Eric Leshinsky and I’m here with my partner Zach Moser to briefly introduce you to Shrimp Projects as well our particular take on resiliency that has come through our experiences over the last two years becoming commercial shrimpers on Galveston Bay and learning how to best sell our catch in Houston.
We believe, as I’m sure many of you do as well, that the labor of producing food necessitates the most accurate and complex understandings of a landscape and is the root of culture. Catching shrimp in Galveston Bay is a remnant of an ancient way of working and is the last way with a direct connection to Houston’s native landscape. Beyond food production, shrimping also resides quietly at the nexus of a host of much larger issues at the forefront of the 21st century: globalization, energy, climate, public health to name a few. And this has really been confirmed by the views and experiences that working aboard this boat has provided over the last two years.
What this work means in practice is that during the bay shrimp season, roughly May through November, we are leaving our houses at 3am most days of the week to be on the water by 4 and spending 8-10hrs fishing. This group of images tries to approximate what’s involved in a typical day of shrimping, from setting the net out at dawn to pulling it in 30mins to an hour later, and then sorting the catch. Although there really is no typical day. We are constantly adapting to changes happening all around us from the weather to the water to the other boats that share the ship channels where we shrimp.
And when we’re not shrimping, such as right now in off season, we’re developing ways of articulating the lessons learned through this work and the engagement it affords with the region.
The ways in which this work has affected our view of resiliency as it applies to local food production and regional food systems has been profound. We began this project focusing on this geography, the Houston region, with an expressed interest in the city’s relationship with Galveston Bay, and the value that this defining feature of the region continues to provide as a source for local food production and the larger regional culture that springs from that. In trying to understand how in the last 100 years or so, this resource– the fundamental reason for the city’s existence– has transitioned from being the major provider of food for the region to being seemingly irrelevant in that regard, we were initially drawn to the obvious local dynamics. Perhaps the severe downsizing of the bay shrimp fleet over the years is really just the result of well-documented lobbying by sport fishermen. Or perhaps there are just fewer shrimp in this bay from a combination of overfishing and nagging pollution. While these are all at least partial culprits, our deeper involvement in the economy of the fishery proved that the real culprit is simply implicit in the the globalized nature of the seafood industry today. The truth is that most of the shrimp being caught wild in Galveston Bay do not land fresh on kitchen tables in the region, but rather become part of a global commodity trade where they might end up in a processor somewhere else on the Gulf Coast or shipped frozen to places farther afield. From our perspective, it’s now impossible to consider building a resilient local food system without considering a variety of global dynamics.
Evidence of this can be found in your local grocer’s freezer. Starting in the early 1990′s with the mass dumping of farm-raised imported shrimp on the U.S. market, the ability for locally-caught shrimp to have a share of the local market has been severely crippled. A variety of well-documented substandard labor and environmental practices in places like China, Thailand and India bely the irony that shrimp farmed and shipped from 10,000 miles away can be sold at a fraction of the cost of shrimp caught within 30 miles. In the process, a quintessential locally-sourced food is devalued and the seasonality that once defined this food becomes a non-issue. The only way that we can compete with frozen imported farm-raised shrimp has been by raising the visibility of the fresh local wild-caught shrimp and selling them directly to restaurants and individuals at our farmers market stand, to chefs and individuals who value local seasonal foods enough to pay what it costs to produce them.
But the supply chain we’ve created, while often gratifying, is not a step toward resiliency but simply an attempt to stay afloat amid rising waters. These are two views of Clear Lake Channel where it meets Galveston Bay, a place where we docked our boat last season and historically ground zero for the seafood industry on the bay. The photo above left from 1986, provides some evidence of this. The photo above right was taken this past Fall (that’s our boat in the foreground). There is perhaps no better graphic to illustrate the challenges of building resiliency within a local fishery. This is a place that has been hit by one hurricane after another, but because the fishery has been reduced in value so much, there is less and less economic incentive to rebuild. And so the forces that have made the fishery infrastructure disappear are well beyond our control and demand a policy that that is national and international in scope, not merely regional.
Reminding ourselves that the watershed of Galveston Bay extends beyond Dallas-Fort Worth provides another telling example of how we have come to think about resiliency. As urban development grows upstream within this watershed, the bay is not only a recipient of more nutrient runoff but also receives an inadequate share of the fresh water flowing downstream– the same fresh water needed to keep the many towns and cities within this watershed running is also needed by the bay or its ecosystem will die. And recent policy changes by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulating this water flow clearly favor upstream development. In other words, the watershed is defined by shared resources but differing values, and as local food produces downstream, it’s just another example of why its impossible to view resiliency within local food production strictly from a local perspective.
And so in closing, we would like to see fisheries become part of the conversation on how cities are building resilient food systems but to do this, we need to expand the frame in which we ask this question. Everything we have seen suggests that the dynamics guiding these resources extend well beyond the local. We would really encourage a conversation that addresses how resiliency can be reinforced through state, national and even global policy shifts.
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, 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.
We recently had to present Shrimp Boat Projects to a distinguished audience of nearly 300 people. And we were only given 7 minutes. Daunting? Yes. But we found a way, and in the interest of catching you up on where the project has come and where it’s going, here’s our talk from the summer retreat organized by one of our funders, the amazing Creative Capital foundation.
Shrimp Boat Projects is our take on where meaning is. We are starting from the standpoint that the first meaning is an accurate understanding of our place in nature, our role in the landscape. To this end, we have spent the past two years becoming commercial shrimpers on Galveston Bay. Our two step process in this work is searching for a fundamental understanding of the Houston landscape and then working to communicate our findings as a new identity for the region.
We began this project back in 2005 thinking about ways to respond to the the national and international coverage of the region following the major Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We wondered why is the gulf coast, in the national consciousness only defined through the specter of disaster? Why are its problems allowed to overwhelm its identity? Questions that were reinforced by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the BP spill in 2010.
We wanted to respond but we were not satisfied dispelling myths, we wanted to disrupt the ability of anyone to essentialize this place we called home. To do this, we designed a method of exploration specific to the region. The labor of shrimping on Galveston Bay is this method, it’s a lens onto the region that makes it impossible to simplify its nuances and complexities.
In a nutshell, the labor of producing food necessitates the most accurate and complex understandings of a landscape and is the roots of culture. Catching shrimp in Galveston Bay is a remnant of an ancient way of working and is the last way with a direct connection to Houston’s native landscape. Beyond food production, shrimping also resides quietly at the nexus of a host of much larger issues at the forefront of the 21st century: globalization, energy, climate, public health, to name a few. By learning, performing, and then sharing the labor of shrimping in Galveston Bay we are reaching for an understanding of the landscape beyond the ability of the sciences and language. We are performing this labor as the embodied practice of understanding our place in nature.
After years of planning we kicked off the project in January of 2011 through a year-long artist residency at the University of Houston’s Mitchell Center for the Arts. We purchased an aging shrimp boat that March and began a major overhaul. After seven months of non-stop work during the longest and hottest Houston summer in decades, we were finally able to launch the 41ft, refitted and renamed F/V Discovery.
Needless to say we had no idea what we were doing when we started, but now after repairing every system on the boat we have the intimate knowledge of the Discovery that allows us to safely head out into Galveston Bay.
After a few weeks of sea trials and catching the tail end of the shrimp season we learned just how much we still have to learn about this profession. Starting this May and now into the summer we have become full-time commercial shrimpers.
Most days of the week we are leaving our houses at 3am to be on the water by 4 and spending 8-10hrs fishing.
We are then bringing our daily catch into Houston, selling to restaurants and more recently at our new farmers market stand. With the high price of diesel and boat maintenance, our daily costs are high, but very excitingly we have reached the milestone of no longer paying to work… we are just working for free.
The difficulty of this work is fascinating, and we have accidentally started a somewhat functional small business. However this project is fundamentally an effort to articulate an identity for Houston, an identity who’s value can be determined by its relevance to the region’s inhabitants, for its complex understandings of the region’s subtleties and contradictions, and for its taking a critical position that will allow the region to envision a better future. To do this, after the current shrimping season, we are shifting our efforts to a phase of cultural production, as making is the only way to communicate the abstract insights into the region that are embedded in the labor of shrimping.