Texas shrimpers open new season with worries

HOUSTON The commercial brown shrimp season opened on Thursday night, but state waters could close if oil spreads to Texas slowly or with a fast push from a hurricane. Unfishable waters are inching toward the Texas state line, forcing more boats into a smaller area, and shrimpers face nervous customers who wonder about the safety of Gulf seafood this year.

For the time being, fewer smaller out-of-state boats will likely be joining the Texas shrimp fleet, but shrimpers and wildlife officials say that could change. Many have been fielding calls from shrimpers and fishermen asking about license availability and state laws, apparently looking for options if the Louisiana oil spill closures turn out to be long-term.

"If they suspect that the fisheries are going to be closed for a long period of time in Louisiana and they want to continue to shrimp as a livelihood, they may be looking to see what the options or opportunities are to relocate to Texas to fish," said Lance Robinson, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's coastal fisheries division.

Texas has several shrimping seasons, but brown shrimp reach their most valuable size this time of year and are the most lucrative. Scientists are predicting an abundance of them this year, but the overall catch will likely be lower in part because of the oil spill, said Roger Zimmerman, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab director in Galveston.

Prices are higher so far this year than last year, said Craig Wallis, who has been shrimping for 35 years out of Palacios, Texas. Dock-side prices jumped to $5.10 per pound for medium-sized brown shrimp this week, up from $3.50 in April. Last year, shrimp was going for $2.50 per pound, he said.

The number of licenses available in Texas has been capped since 2005 for conservation purposes, and lapsed licenses are not reissued. Out-of-state fishermen who want to sell shrimp in Texas or fish within nine miles of the coast need a state license, but the only way to get a new one is from an existing license holder.

Federal permits allow fishermen to trawl in Texas' waters beyond nine miles but not sell in-state. Currently, there are 651 resident and 123 non-resident licenses issued in Texas.

To hold onto the licenses, existing owners must renew by Aug. 31, and some Louisiana fishermen -- busy with oil cleanup and cash-strapped from fishing bans -- have been contacting the Texas Shrimp Association to ask if their valuable Texas licenses will still be valid if they don't renew them this year, said executive director Wilma Anderson.

Houston-based Texas game warden Maj. William Skeen said he hasn't seen any permit transfers yet.

"We're not aware of any yet, but it is an open market where that can happen," he said. "We're thinking that there might be some of that."

When Joel Davis heard his 83-year-old father-in-law was considering surrendering his Texas license because of his age and the cost of continuing to do business, Davis had another idea: sell it through online classified ads sites in Gulf states.

He got a half dozen calls but no takers so far, and plans to repost the ad soon.

"I specifically didn't put a price because I didn't want to freak people out and I want to be negotiable," said Davis after he consulted brokers and scouted prices of other license sales. "If you're serious about it and you've got a big boat and you're trying to come over there, it's the cost of doing business."

Davis told interested callers the price is $10,000.

Cost might be a big barrier keeping Louisiana shrimpers from heading to Texas, shrimpers say.

Every year as seasons open, large shrimping boats move from state to state in federal waters and stay out for weeks, freezing their catch and returning to a home port to sell. But that requires fuel, food, ice and crew costs that quickly add up, said longtime Louisiana shrimper Kimberly Chauvin.

"People just don't have that kind of money right now," said Chauvin, whose three boats were among the first hired to help BP with the oil spill cleanup.

But, she conceded, anything might be possible if the water closure that began May 2 drags on.

"People in dire situations will do what they need to do to go shrimping," Chauvin said.

Texas fishermen are nervous about the uncertainties caused by the spill but plan to stick it out.

Wallis said he's concerned about all the challenges but anticipates a good season anyway. And he's not worried about the possibility that more out-of-state shrimpers might be looking to fish waters off the Texas coast.

"We've been dealing with all these boats coming to Texas for a number of years, not just because of the oil spill, and it hasn't been a problem," said Wallis, who sent out seven boats this week. "The Gulf belongs to everybody anyway."

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