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.
Actually, there is no such thing as a typical day for us. Nothing is ever the same on the bay. But our second season of shrimping got going back in mid-April and we have settled into somewhat of a routine. Now thanks to the photography of our friends David Feil and Oopey Mason, we can share what a typical day in this routine looks like. It was actually one of our best days, as we returned to the dock with a sizeable catch and nothing to fix on the boat. We’ll see what tomorrow brings….
Our day begins by leaving our homes in Houston at 3am to be on the water by 4am. We'll spend the next 8-10 hours fishing for shrimp.
The inherent optimism of a sunrise over Galveston Bay. It also means it's time to get to work.
Setting out the net and trawl doors for the first time of the day.
Before long the net and doors are in the water and we are officially shrimping!
As we prepare to pull in the net, the drop block gets pulled up first.
Zach works the winch while I work the ropes at the pin rail.
With the doors up, we prepare to pull in the net by the lazy line.
Reeled in by the winch, the net emerges from wat and we await the moment of truth.
As Zach empties our catch into the drop box, the moment of truth is upon us... this was one of our best catches.
We quickly set the net back out and prepare for another drag.
Soon after the net is back in, we begin the arduous task of sorting the shrimp from the bycatch (as our loyal fans look on)
More shrimp and less fish makes this job easier.
We recently stumbled upon a remarkable postcard, in an unlikely place. It happened while visiting the historic Davison House as part of a tour of Texas City with our class from the University of Houston. Although there appears to be no direct link between the Davison House or the Davison family to the industry of bay shrimping, this card was being sold as one of the few pieces of Texas City historical merchandise available for purchase at the house (postcard cost: 10 cents). We wanted to share the image not just because we love postcards of shrimp boats (the image on our header above is also a postcard) but this particular card image from Texas City describes the unique context of Galveston Bay in ways that few other images can. And the simple caption of the postcard, “Good Neighbors”, suggests the idea of a balance between ecology, economy and culture… an idea that defines the mission of Shrimp Boat Projects.
We’ve become accustomed to talking about Shrimp Boat Projects within a diverse range of disciplines and discourses, everything from art and architecture to ecology and economics. This has as much to do with the projects’s original design as the nature of the bay shrimping profession itself and the specific way it is situated within the Houston region.
But as we work on our boat and continue to ready it for harvesting shrimp, increasingly (and naturally) we’re drawn to simply talking about our work within the discourse of locally-sourced food and sustainable food practices. This is partly what led us to the recent Foodways Texas Symposium, and this is what led me recently to the book Remaking the North American Food System: Strategies for Sustainability– the book’s introduction opens with the following quote which speaks directly to the core values that inspire our project:
“Western philosophical and educational tradition has long distinguished ‘knowing’ activities, such as science and art, from other ‘doing’ activities involving practical, manual labor. The former, presumed to deal with fixed, eternal truths, have always been more valued than the latter, which are seen as transient and repetitive activities, subject to flux, growth, and decay. Treating foodmaking– the growing, harvesting, preparing, and eating of foods– as thoughtful practice can reconcile this problematic, binary formulation.”
- C. Clare Hinrichs from the the introductory essay “Practice and Place in Remaking the Food System”