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South Texas shrimpers cling to culture as industry undergoes change

The Daily Advertiser (Lafayette) logo The Daily Advertiser (Lafayette) 10/20/2019 Kathryn Cargo, Corpus Christi Caller Times
a bird flying over a body of water: Doan Pham looks out in to the Aransas Bay as he sorts what he caught after unloading his net in to tanks on the deck of his shrimping boat, Margie on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109. © Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times Doan Pham looks out in to the Aransas Bay as he sorts what he caught after unloading his net in to tanks on the deck of his shrimping boat, Margie on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109.

ROCKPORT, Texas — Doan Pham leaves Rockport Harbor just after after 6 a.m. aboard his 40-foot shrimp boat named Margie.

The sky is dark and some stars are still shining. The sun won't start rising for another 30 minutes. This is the earliest time Pham can legally be out on the water. 

From a small cabin at the front of the boat, Pham reaches out to other bay shrimpers by radio. 

They chatter in Vietnamese, his first language, about the best spots to catch shrimp.

"We've been here for (a) long time," Pham says. "I know every way."

He eventually leans back in his blue-cushioned captain's chair and uses his feet to steer the ship.

This is how Pham, one of the few remaining bay shrimpers in Texas, has started almost every morning for the last 41 years.

a flock of seagulls are standing in the snow: Birds surround Doan Pham and his son Tuan Pham as they separate their catch aboard his shrimping boat, Margie in Aransas Bay on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109. © Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times Birds surround Doan Pham and his son Tuan Pham as they separate their catch aboard his shrimping boat, Margie in Aransas Bay on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109.

The number of shrimp boats operating in Texas has drastically decreased since the late 1980s. That's also when sales of farm-raised shrimp imported into the U.S. from other countries began to take off. 

Farm-raised shrimp generally is much cheaper than wild-caught shrimp. That makes it difficult for shrimpers to live off the trade.

Most shrimpers have left the industry, and data from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department tells that story. 

The number of boats licensed to catch table shrimp in Texas bays dropped by nearly 90 percent during the past 31 years. There were 3,052 such boats licensed in 1988, compared with 345 in 2019. 

A similar trend is true for boats licensed to catch bait shrimp — there are now 339 such vessels in Texas bay waters, compared with 2,378 in 1988.  

Most shrimpers have licenses to catch both table and bait shrimp. 

Ties to Asia

Doan Pham, 65, is among them. 

He and his wife, Mo Tran Pham immigrated to the U.S. as refugees in 1975, after the Vietnam War ended. They met in a refugee camp in Arkansas and eventually made their way to Rockport in 1978.

Doan Pham eats breakfast as he steers his shrimping boat, Margie with his feet in Aransas Bay early on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109. © Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times Doan Pham eats breakfast as he steers his shrimping boat, Margie with his feet in Aransas Bay early on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109.

Once in Rockport, a coastal town of 8,800 residents about 30 miles from Corpus Christi, they gave shrimping a try.

The territory wasn't too unfamiliar for the Phams. Some family back in Vietnam were also shrimpers; they lived near the coastal town of Vũng Tàu.

Rockport's docks were dotted with scores of other shrimpers when the Phams arrived. Some of them belonged to other families from Southeast Asia that settled in the area, falling back on a skill they learned in their homelands.

More: PHOTOS- Delcambre Shrimp Festival

These days?

"(There's) not many shrimpers right now," said Mo Tran Pham, 60. "Most the people shrimping right now — we don’t have (a) high education and don’t know what to do (so we) stay in the shrimper business."

Doan Pham mainly sold to "fish houses" or wholesale companies during his first two decades as a shrimper. In those days, he and his wife went out together on the shrimp boat.

Now, she remains on shore, managing Mom's Bait Shop, a store in Rockport the couple bought in 1998.

They did so because there's a market for live shrimp. Anglers usually prefer it, said their son, Tuan Pham. 

Making a profit selling shrimp to wholesalers is nearly impossible; farm-raised shrimp is generally cheaper.

It also has brought down the market value.

Towing the line

Still, Doan Pham isn't deterred.

It takes him about 30 minutes to drive Margie out to the middle of Aransas Bay, about three miles from the Rockport shoreline.

It's here that he that he hopes to land a large haul of shrimp.

Pham drags a "try net" along the side of the boat, followed later by a 65-foot trawling net.

Pham and his son sort the catch into different tanks by species.

Whatever is usable, they keep. What's not becomes a meal for the dozens of seagulls and pelicans following closely behind them. 

a flock of seagulls standing next to a body of water: Birds follow and sit on the deck of Doan Pham's shrimping boat, Margie as he shorts what he caught in Aransas Bay on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109. © Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times Birds follow and sit on the deck of Doan Pham's shrimping boat, Margie as he shorts what he caught in Aransas Bay on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109.

They're not the only ones that get to snack while on the boat.

At times, Pham places shrimp on the engine's muffler, located at the middle of the boat. There, the shrimp, some measuring as long as six inches, cook within minutes. 

On this day, the haul is about 90 pounds of shrimp. Some days, Pham will catch more than 200 pounds. On slower days, he'll get 10 pounds. 

"Sometimes we go out and don’t get enough to sell," Mo Tran Pham said. "That’s why you never know. One day we catch them, sometimes we don’t."

They had to learn everything about shrimping on their own — from boat mechanics to using the trawling net. 

"He can build a boat. He can fix the engine," Mo Tran Pham said, referring to her husband. "(The) first five or six years start(ed) a lot of trouble, and (we) have to learn how to do it."

While there are lean times in the business, the Phams say they always seemed to do well enough to provide for their six children, all of whom are now adults.

Only about 10 percent of shrimp consumed in the U.S. is wild-caught. The rest is farm-raised and mostly imported, said Mark Fisher, science director for the Coastal Fisheries Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 

"It's cheaper to grow a pound of shrimp than to catch a pound of shrimp," he said. 

The amount of shrimp caught in Texas bays has also decreased significantly, according to the department. State bay shrimpers caught about 1.7 million pounds in 2019. That's nearly 80 percent less than the 8.1 million caught in 2000. 

Texas Shrimp Association officials also credit imported farm-raised shrimp for the dwindling number of shrimpers.

"America is deemed the dumping ground for shrimp around the world," association executive director Andrea Hance said. "That’s probably the no.1 reason we have declined so much — is we can't compete with that."

a group of people sitting at a zoo: Doan Pham pick out the shrimp from a holding tank as he sortis his catch on the deck of his shrimping boat, Margie in Aransas Bay on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109. © Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times Doan Pham pick out the shrimp from a holding tank as he sortis his catch on the deck of his shrimping boat, Margie in Aransas Bay on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109.

Fighting back with new laws

A Louisiana law took effect on Sept. 1 requiring restaurants to identify shrimp or crawfish that is imported from outside the U.S.

Louisiana’s House Bill 335 requires restaurants to publish on its menus if the seafood it uses is imported and the country of origin. If they fail to do so, they can be fined.

The association is pushing for a similar law in Texas.  

The decline of commercial shrimp boats in state bays started in the mid-1990s. The state department stopped selling shrimping licenses for the bays in 1995.

The following year, the department started buying back these licenses and retiring them. Since, more than three-fourths of them have been retired.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife implemented these programs to offset overfishing of shrimp. 

"The shrimp they were catching were getting smaller and smaller," Fisher said.

a man in a dark room: Doan Pham turns on a CB radio on his shrimping boat, Margie as he heads out in to Aransas Bay to shrimp before sunrise on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109. © Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times Doan Pham turns on a CB radio on his shrimping boat, Margie as he heads out in to Aransas Bay to shrimp before sunrise on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2109.

Demand for live bait and the taste of wild-caught shrimp will keep the industry going, Fisher said. Shrimpers remain Texas' biggest fleet of commercial fishers.

"There are still hundreds (of shrimpers) out there, and they do fill a niche that the farm-raised shrimp cannot," he said.

Continuing a family tradition

Tuan Pham said he hated going shrimping with his dad when he was a child. Now, the seafood industry is part of his everyday life — like it is for a lot of his family.

Now, he wants to continue his parents' legacy, so he can support them in their old age.

A few years ago, he left his job as a refinery inspector to open Fisherman's Bait & Seafood Market in Corpus Christi with his fiancée, Diana Vu, 34.

A lot of his shrimp comes straight from his dad's catches.

"We don’t want him to do that, because (it's) too much work," Mo Tran Pham said.  "If he wants to try it, let him try."

Kathryn Cargo follows business openings and developments while reporting on impacts of the city government’s decisions. Help support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Caller-Times.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: South Texas shrimpers cling to culture as industry undergoes change

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