In early December, shrimper and oysterman Scooter Machacek, whose family has been working the Gulf Coast of Texas for four generations, took his two-man crew out to harvest oysters in waters off Palacios (puh-LA-shus), a small port a couple hours down the coast from Galveston. It had been a terrible day, he tells me; it took seven hours to gather just 13 hundred-pound sacks of oysters, which his crew quickly unloaded from his boat "Hloczek" onto the deck at JoJo's, their buyer in Turning Basin 4. Thirteen sacks was a pitiful haul, less than half of the allowable daily limit of 30 sacks, which itself was a fraction of the 140-sack limit allowed in the heyday of the 1980s.
Everything, it seemed, was shrinking, and Scooter thinks there might not be a future in shellfishing along this stretch of shoreline.
"This is just a dying industry, is what it is," says Scooter, 53.
He might be right. The sleepy ports along the Gulf Coast of Texas are shadows of what they were just 25 years ago. Then, thousands of smaller bay boats like Scooter's, around 40 feet long, plied the shallow waters around the barrier islands that form the fringed coast. Thousands more of the larger gulf boats, at least twice the size of bay boats with double outriggers that stretch out like wings, disappeared into the deeper, federally controlled waters of the Gulf of Mexico itself, at least nine nautical miles out to sea, for weeks on end.
At the time, only a smattering of the public was paying attention to scientists raising the alarm about the planet's temperature. Diesel fuel cost about one-third less than it does today. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn't exist. And Mexicans moved with relative ease over the border to join the rest of the shellfishing workforce: Anglos who had inhabited Texas for generations along with recent Vietnamese immigrants who had gravitated to the southern shorelines of the United States after the American government laid out the welcome mat for them, feeling a moral obligation to Southern Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon.
Everything is different now. The decline of the American shellfishing industry is inextricably linked to global systems both economic and environmental. From cheap food imports to hurricanes fueled by a warming planet, these systems support, or strain, the tapestry of what it takes to get seafood to the dinner plates of diners.
But part of the shellfishing struggle is that it is also collateral damage of a success: the achievement of the American Dream, by generations of shrimpers and oystermen who've come before. That dream might mean the end of Scooter's way of life because those who worked the hardest—and the labor of shellfishing is unmistakably hard work—supported the education and pursuits of their children, who are increasingly finding other professions to enter. The fate of the boats that line the port of Palacios, self-declared "Shrimp Capital of Texas," hangs in the salty air.
Shrimp constitute the biggest haul along this part of the Texas coast, followed by blue crab and oyster, all of which begin their life cycles in the bays and estuaries that serve as the Gulf of Mexico's nurseries. But those ecosystems are changing. According to the latest National Climate Assessment, the Texas coastline is particularly vulnerable to such climate catastrophes as flooding, drought, increasing storm intensity and sea level rise. These climate change effects can be seen as a "threat multiplier" as they play out in the lives of men like Scooter—bay shrimping from May to November and oystering through the winter—who struggle to keep an industry alive.
Consider, for example, the single factor of rain. Scooter has felt the impact of increasing heavy rainfall.
"We're getting drowned in freshwater," he says. "The rain is crazy. That weather just comes and dumps and dumps and dumps. You used to get these little rains, now it just pours on." This influx of rain leads to a domino effect that's being felt up and down the Gulf coast.
Scooter's sure he'll be one of the downed dominoes. The long line of the family business, he says, it is "going to end with me."
Too Much 'Agua Dulce'
A couple hours up the coast from Palacios is San Leon, a peninsula jutting out into the Galveston Bay. It is an oystering hotspot. At Misho's Oyster Co., white oyster boats with bright blue trim come into port one after the other. These boats have met the 30-bag daily limit, though the oystermen tell me it took them seven hours when it should've been more like two. Each boat delivers its load directly onto a conveyor belt that carries the burlap sacks up to pallets that are loaded straight into trucks for distribution. The trucks then hit the road, some heading as far away as Virginia.
Once the boats have unloaded and are settled into their slips, I step from deck to deck of the tightly nestled vessels and hear variations on the same story from just about every captain. Too much "agua dulce," say Capt. Jose Tobar of the "Esmerelda," and Capt. Perez Martinez of the "Miss Joyce," and Capt. Jesus Delgado of "Buster." Freshwater is the biggest hindrance to the health of the oyster industry, they tell me, along with over-harvesting (as indicated by undersized oysters).
The Lone Star is a large state, and heavy rains in just about any river drainage can eventually be felt along the Gulf Coast. Excess freshwater comes from too much rain—or, as John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas's state climatologist, puts it, "the same amount of rain, but in more concentrated episodes." In every region of the United States, extreme precipitation events—when it just "dumps and dumps," as Scooter said—are rising along with human carbon emissions. If we can radically reel in emissions by century's end, they'll merely go up by half or maybe double compared to historical averages. If we don't, Americans could get "dumped" up to three times as frequently as they once did.
It makes annual rainfall averages misleading. The Texas coast might still be getting around 45 inches of rain each year. But for oysters—and humans—a deluge can be destructive in ways that steady rains are not.
The arrival of freshwater can initially be beneficial, bringing nutrients that nourish coastal ecosystems. But too much can easily wreak havoc. Oysters are especially vulnerable. Contained within their rock-hard shells, oysters are powerful filtration systems, but they depend on a certain level of salinity to function. When too much freshwater enters the system, the salinity plummets. The oysters can die, the shells yawning open, empty of life. When this happens, the Texas Department of State Health Services shuts down the affected harvest areas, forcing oyster boats to travel farther along the coast in search of open beds, or else to lie idle in port.
Heavy springtime rains can also affect the shrimping industry. They can flush juvenile shrimp out to deep waters prematurely, where they're vulnerable to predation, because, as one biologist explained, "Everything eats shrimp." Flooding also brings a host of hazards in its wake. Storm debris can knock out ship propellers and tear up shrimp nets. Polluting effluents come from the region's prodigious petrochemical industries along with fertilizers from farm blitzes upstream. "When they spray the cotton to defoliate it," Scooter says, "and you get a rain after that, it wipes everything out, kills everything." And those who seek wild shrimp look askance at the growing number of shrimp farms, worried about exotic species and disease outbreaks.
In the past 30 years, floods actually came less frequently than in previous years to the southern Great Plains, a region that includes Kansas and Oklahoma along with Texas. But the floods that did arrive were repeatedly record-breaking. And as warming continues, climate models are predicting more of these heavy precipitation events across much of the southern and eastern United States.
Between the floods are droughts, when bay salinity shoots up. Oysters thrive in these conditions, but so do the parasites that attack them—again leading to oyster die-offs that cause the health department to shut down oyster beds. Extreme droughts have already resulted in losses to fish, crabs, oysters and waterfowl, and the swings between drought and flood are more common than a century ago. Efforts to artificially enhance declining oyster beds across the Gulf states are underway, including in Matagorda Bay in Palacios and in the waters off San Leon, where Misho's Oyster Co. dumps their used shells back into the water to help build future oyster reefs. Despite these efforts, though, if the water salinity and quality are poor, the oysters won't thrive.
With warming and drought conditions also come algae blooms. Already, red tides have become more frequent along the Gulf coastlines—they ravaged the coast of Florida earlier this year—and they are becoming more intense and more widespread, according to the National Climate Assessment. In ordinary circumstances, oysters can be miracle workers, filtering polluted waters yet themselves remaining clean enough for human consumption. But algae blooms are the exception. Even after a bloom clears up, toxicity can linger in the oysters for weeks or even months. Again, the health department shuts down harvests. In 2011, a bloom in Texas lasted from September into the next year, causing $7.5 million in losses to the fish and shellfish industries.
Shrimp Out of Sync
Even if heavy rains don't flush shrimp out of the bays prematurely, warming temperatures can spur their early departure. That would be fine if bay shrimpers didn't find themselves completely out of sync with the regulatory seasons.
"Usually we have brownies for a month," says Steve Pirhoda, referring to the brown shrimp that dominate the Texas harvest from May to June. "But this year, they were ready in April, a month before the season opened." Three days after he was allowed to harvest according to his state license, the brownies were gone to deeper waters, he says, beyond the reach of bay shrimpers like himself and Scooter Machacek, who is his cousin. He estimates that in 2018 he made half of what he usually does.
I meet Steve, 63, on the edge of Tres Palacios Bay in Palacios. An early December cold front is on its way and he zips up his Walls duck-hooded work jacket to fend off the wind. His shrimp boat "Sea Tiger" is lashed to pilings in the backyard of his waterfront home as he begins a gut renovation of the wheelhouse.
"Usually a hurricane helps us," says Steve, who has been shrimping since 1974. Storms stir things up, which encourages feeding, so shrimping is often better in the year after a hurricane, despite the immediate disruptive aftermath. "But it didn't help us," he says about Hurricane Harvey, which struck this area of the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2017, causing more than a billion dollars worth of damage. "If anything, it got worse."
Steve dismisses climate change as a factor in what he's experiencing after more than 40 years of shrimping the same waters—he doesn't see the evidence, he says. He blames the decline on pollution from aquaculture, agriculture and a Colorado River diversion, as well as on the construction of an erosion-control barrier wall just beyond the marsh dunes that keeps young shrimp from moving with the tides.
Texas Parks & Wildlife (TP&W) has been sampling the Gulf for about the same amount of time that Steve has been shrimping, and their data match what he says about early departures. "We were able to predict within a week or so when you'd see juvenile shrimp" enter the Gulf, says Lance Robinson, deputy division director. He found that the shrimp would move from the bay into deeper waters "like clockwork"—but on a clock that had moved forward by at least a couple of weeks. In the 1980s and 1990s, the peak period of the shrimp moving into the Gulf was late May; now it's shifted to early May.
"Brown shrimp do appear to be leaving the bays earlier than they used to," TP&W science director Mark Fisher confirms, "most likely due to warmer water temperatures."
TP&W has recorded more than a 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature per decade in the 40 years of surveying. Agency officials are mulling over changing harvest dates, but they know there are still likely to be unseasonably cool springs in the future, which would delay the shrimp as much as warming speeds them up. So far, keeping the status quo of a May 15 opening day for the bay shrimping season is their compromise.
Same weather, same bay, same business, but Scooter Machecek diverges from his cousin on the matter of climate change.
"These storms are getting crazy," Scooter tells me. "They're getting bigger and bigger. And they develop quick, not like they used to. Ahhh, this is going to be a [Category 1 storm] and it comes in a 4! They think that's all it's going to be, and it just keeps a-ginning," whipping up in strength, "because the water is so warm."
The two men do agree on one thing: that the legacy of their livelihood might be coming to an end with them. Still, neither of them is quite ready to pack it up. "They told me 25 years ago that I wouldn't be shrimping in 20 years," Steve said. "We're laughing right to the end."
The Fading Fleets
There are essentially two fleets that pursue shrimp in these parts. The bay shrimpers, regulated by the state, stay close to shore, while the federally regulated Gulf shrimpers head to deeper waters. Both fleets are fading in size. State and federal license moratoriums and license buyback programs started in the 1990s and 2000s, prompted by a concern about overharvesting and a hope to maintain a viable livelihood for the boats that remained. That means that more threads of the already-fraying shellfishing industry have been clipped out of place. For the close-to-shore bay shrimpers, the state has bought back two-thirds of the licenses since the mid-1990s. Farther offshore, the number of boats has declined by a quarter just in the last decade.
On a bright December Monday I sit down with Craig Wallis, owner of W&W Dock & Ice, in his office in Turning Basin 2 in Palacios. He has seven boats now, all of which were out on 45-day voyages in the Gulf. Each was expected to return the following week with 20,000 pounds of flash-frozen shrimp in their hulls. In the early 1990s, Craig tells me, he had twice as many boats, back when regulations were more lax and fuel was a lot cheaper. "That's a biggie for us," he says in his baritone voice, tapping his pen on the table. "Fuel—that's a third of our expense."
But while fuel prices have generally gone up (until the recent dip), prices for their catch at the dock have remained stagnant.
"Just like the beef industry or the chicken industry or anything else, nobody's getting paid any more for their product," Craig says. "There's prices we saw in the '70s that we see now," referencing the $2 to $3 per pound they get for their shrimp—a fraction of what consumers pay. "And expenses are going up, up, and up."
Even as seafood consumers become greater connoisseurs of what appears on their plates, they'll only pay so much for it, and by and large they don't really care where it comes from. That explains why 80 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported, according to NOAA Fisheries. In 2017 shrimp imports alone were valued at $6.5 billion, and those numbers are on the rise. Those cheap imports are coming from shrimp farms in India, Indonesia, Ecuador, Vietnam and elsewhere, where labor and environmental laws are a shadowy sliver of U.S. standards. It's nearly impossible for American producers to compete.
Craig is 66, and his seven captains, all Latino and many of whom have been with W&W for decades, are all around the same age, that age of failing knees and bad backs. The industry relies heavily on younger H-2B visa workers from Mexico, but recent restrictions on this temporary non-agricultural laborer visa category, which includes everyone from waitresses to deckhands, have added a new challenge for an already struggling industry. Another thread. Another snip.
"We can't find local people that want to do that work," Craig says. "The caliber of white people in this particular industry," he continues, "they're not any good." He speaks highly of the Mexicans he's hired and worked with for decades. "They're here to work. They do a good job. They're high quality." As we speak, the wife of one the captains (herself an occasional deckhand, when labor's short), steps in with a Christmas gift for Craig, a nice bottle of Don Julio tequila. Of the 18 H-2B visa workers that W&W requested this year, they were permitted only two.
Infrastructure, Built and Economic
Another climate risk for Texas Gulf towns is the sea itself, which these days sometimes rises high enough to reach coastal properties with a kiss (if they're lucky) or a clobber (if they're not). Sea levels along the Texas coastline have gone up 5 to 17 inches, higher than the global average, in part because of subsidence caused by extraction of groundwater and fossil fuels. Along the Texas coastline, one thousand square miles of the Texas coast exists within five feet of the high-tide line, putting $9.6 billion of real estate, including hospitals, power plants and hazardous waste sites, and 45,000 people at risk.
Rising seas translate to more severe storm surges when hurricanes hit. One study found that global warming was responsible for making the rains from 2017's Hurricane Harvey about 15 percent more intense. Today, to reach the front door of some seaside homes, you first have to climb two flights of stairs.
The state of Texas is considering massive barrier-building projects to protect residents from the increasing threat of storm surges. Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state is conducting the Coastal Texas Study, a sweeping plan to create a more defensive shoreline that would include infrastructure such as dikes, levees and seawalls. How effective these forms of hard infrastructure would be is highly debatable—especially if inland flooding rushing down toward the Gulf is as much a threat as the storm surge coming up from it.
One obvious risk of these physical barriers is the one Steve Pirhoda points out, indicating the seawall that was built just beyond where the "Sea Tiger" is docked: the interruption of the necessary movement of species to and from the nurseries where their aquatic lives begin.
But there's another type of infrastructure at risk along the coast. Palacios was spared the wrath of Hurricane Harvey, but a bit farther down the coast, Port Lavaca was hammered. W&W Dock & Ice had shrimp being processed at a plant there whose roof caved in during the storm. They scrambled to send the shrimp south to a freezer that was functioning, but even after the storm was over, the plant never reopened. Now, W&W sends its shrimp on eighteen-wheelers to Louisiana for processing.
"If you start losing the infrastructure of a port, you can't get things done," Craig says. Welders, or the guys who do winch work, "they're out of business if they don't have enough boats to survive."
Just as the effects of climate change serve as a threat multiplier, there are economic multipliers, too. TP&W estimates that the close-to-shore bay shrimping industry, for example, brings in 1.8 times what the shrimp landings themselves earn the shrimpers. That means that the $8 million that ship captains received for their bounty in 2017 translated to more than $15 million for the local community.
The result is a shrinking and consolidation of the Gulf shrimping fleet. "In Port Aransas, there were 150 boats in the 1970s; now they've got two," Craig tells me. "Only three in Freeport, and they used to have a couple hundred." Many businesses folded, but others migrated to Palacios, keeping at least this port steady in the number of Gulf boats. All these places, "they've all diminished," Craig says, going as far back as the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "After Katrina, we lost a lot. Some weren't doing well so they took the insurance money and ran."
That was followed by more setbacks: Hurricane Rita just weeks after Katrina, Hurricane Ike in 2008, the BP oil spill in 2010. With each storm or corporate catastrophe, another snippet is clipped from the economic fabric of a place, and quietly it unravels.
The American Dream Endgame
Back in San Leon, not far from Misho's Oyster Co., lives Huynh Cong Tu, a longtime bay shrimper. He is a stocky spitfire of a man who was one of thousands of Vietnamese who fled from their country when the Communists took over. Huynh left his home on the Mekong Delta on a ferry boat loaded with refugees, made it to Malaysia, and from there he managed to get to the United States. It was 1979, the peak of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees, 130,000 looking for a new home after the war. He was 19 and eager to work, but without English skills, so he followed an uncle to the Gulf Coast and began working on boats, like many of his compatriots.
Many Vietnamese settled along the Gulf shores, from Alabama to Texas, and learned to work on boats. By the 1990s, some 60 percent of the Gulf fleet was Vietnamese. With the sudden demographic shift came violence; Huynh's uncle's boat was burned by the KKK in Seadrift, Texas. Huynh shifted to San Leon in 1982, when it was a virtually all-white town. Now San Leon is a melting pot: Latinos unload the oyster boats, a Nepali runs the local convenience store, and the red and yellow stripes of the Vietnamese flag fly from front yards around town. Each new group of immigrants comes, ready and hoping. Scooter Machacek and Steve Pirhoda's Czechoslovakian ancestors five generations back were no different.
"This is not easy money," Huynh tells me. "This is hard job. When we buy the boat, we have no money, but family help each other."
The Vietnamese community is tight-knit, pooling its resources and helping each other get established or get out of crises. After Katrina hit New Orleans, the Vietnamese communities recovered quickly because of these shared resources. "Borrow money from whole family. Put it all together, then one standing up. Then later on, the second one standing up," he says, a large pendant made of the tooth of a boar around his neck, the Buddha's figure carved within. "We try to do the circle like that."
But few of the owners of all those Vietnamese flags around town remain working on the water.
"Now, no shrimp," Huynh says. "Nothing. Less, less, less, all the time." He sold his boat and license in 1994 to take up crabbing instead, but the crab, too, seem to be disappearing. Over the last few years, he's seen the decline, sure there is something wrong with the water. But he's earned a good enough living to raise his house after Hurricane Ike swamped it, and to send all six of his children to school. Not one is considering following in their father's footsteps. They work as counselors and nurses, or go to school for law or medicine. Steve Pirhoda's son is heading into refrigeration. Scooter Machacek's daughters are a nurse and a physical therapist.
"I got a couple grandboys," Scooter tells me, "but I hope they have nothing to do with it," speaking of his work on the water. "I hope they go get a real job, with real money. This ain't money. Not anymore."
It is possible that the shellfish will adapt to a changing climate, but the Americans that make their living off them will disappear anyway. All that unraveling, the dead yawning oysters, the shuttered processing plants, the sudden strength of storms, might make that coastal fringe fracture in a way it can't recover from.
When I ask Craig Wallis what the industry might look like in 10 years, he says, "There's going to be a commodity out there in the Gulf that you're not going to be able to afford to get."
But if you step back from the emptying docks, and pause, isn't this the American Dream in action? Anglo, Asian, Latino—everyone hopes for a better life, an easier life, a wealthier life, for their children. Take school seriously, stay away from drugs, cultivate a work ethic, and, in spite of staggering economic stratification in our society, this dream is still possible.
And the disappearance of shellfishing off our southern shores, maybe that's the collateral damage of the fact that Scooter's two daughters and Huynh's six kids can make a decent living that doesn't involve winches and weather. And when they're hungry they'll be able to afford nice dinners out with plates full of seafood, from somewhere.
Top photo: Fishing boats on the Texas Gulf Coast. Credit: Meera Subramanian