By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Sandy Wilson
Founded in 1909, Palacios is a sleepy little fishing village on the Texas Gulf Coast, southwest of Houston. The town is sustained by a thriving port, which covers some 600 acres, and is home to a fleet of over 200 commercial shrimp boats—earning it the designation of Shrimp Capital of Texas.
Much of the shrimp and crabmeat sold wholesale from the Texas coast is brought ashore in Palacios—over seven million tons of shrimp in 2012 alone.
The town is also the lifelong home of Edward Garcia, Sr. and his wife, Antonia. Edward’s livelihood has always been the Gulf—beginning with the oyster boats he worked on as a very young man. He eventually ventured into shrimping and worked his way up to boat captain. In 1952, the Garcias bought their own shrimp boat—a wooden-hull trawler they named Texas 18, the first in the waters of Matagorda Bay to be owned by an Hispanic family. Shortly after setting up their operation, though, the boat was destroyed in a suspected act of ethnic violence. Deciding that the best thing to do was to keep moving forward, the Garcias regrouped, and within six months purchased a second boat, Texas 1.
The family business grew in the mid-1980s, at a time when many shrimpers were being forced out of business by the rising costs of operating the boats. The Garcias’ four sons and their sons’s sons soon came onboard—becoming boat owners and expanding the company. In 2002, the Garcias’ son Kenneth, along with daughter Regina Garcia Peña, joined together with the idea to streamline the family’s individual shrimp-boat operations into one, better-organized business. Kenneth wanted to pursue a direction that not only reflected the family’s fundamental principles of integrity, quality and service, but which highlighted a dedication to sustainable operating practices as well. Brother Anthony and Edward Sr. joined the partnership, and Philly Seafood (named in honor of Regina’s young son who had passed away) was formed. Regina was determined to change the way the company did business—from simply selling shrimp to developing an actual brand that represented their values, hard work and dedication. “Our parents taught their thirteen children that the most valuable thing a person owns is their good name,” says Regina. “Our name is everything to us.”
Today, Edward and Antonia have four sons, two daughters, four nephews and many grandsons actively involved in the family business, and Philly Seafood is one of the largest privately owned shrimping groups in the United States. They count 30 trawlers under their umbrella, each with the capacity to hold 70,000 pounds of shrimp.
To maintain complete control over their product from the net to the consumer, Philly Seafood processes 98 percent of their shrimp locally in Port Lavaca, a short 23 miles from where the boats dock. The company directly employs 130 to 140 people, plus many more in the accessory ripple effect—net makers, fuel providers, engine mechanics and more—and an additional 100 people at the processing plant. The company is now a recognized and respected brand in the retail and wholesale seafood landscape across the U.S.
Success and growth aside, the family’s dedication to respecting the Gulf waters remains unwavering. “We now use lighter webbing in our nets,” says Regina. “And the once huge and heavy wooden doors on the nets have been redesigned into smaller, lighter ones—practices designed to make the boats more fuel efficient.” The family and their employees remain mindful of the delicate balance that exists between the ocean and its creatures.
“Our extended family thinks of themselves as family farmers,” Regina says. “Only our farm is the Gulf of Mexico and our crop is shrimp. We’ve had good years and bad years. [But] our father’s tireless work ethic and never-say-die spirit, and our mother’s endless support and encouragement, [have] been the foundation for our family’s success throughout the difficult and changing shrimp industry.”
(Above, left to right): Edward Garcia Sr., Regina Garcia Peña, Kenneth Garcia, Edward Garcia Jr. and Anthony Garcia
SHRIMPING IN TEXAS
By MM Pack
The Texas Gulf Coast waters teem with wildlife and serve as a marine playground for many, even as the adjacent petrochemical and refinery towers loom and tankers and container ships ply the waterways—reminding us of the significance that oil and international commerce have in the region’s identity and economy. It’s a textbook example of what cultural historian Leo Marx calls “the machine in the garden”—the intersection of technology, culture and nature.
Shrimp have long played a role in this formula, and harvesting them has long been a way of life along the Texas coast and into the Gulf. Nineteenth-century shrimpers set seine nets along coastal shores and used horses to pull them in. After World War II, surplus military diesel engines and improved refrigeration enabled shrimp trawlers to drag huge nets, go out farther into the water and stay out longer. Modern Gulf trawlers are expensive, well-equipped vessels that stay out for weeks—freezing and holding thousands of pounds of shrimp. In the bays, smaller boats leave port before dawn and trawl until afternoon—returning with the catch daily.
Like farming and ranching, shrimping has traditionally been family legacy work, and the independent-minded shrimpers have often been called “cowboys of the sea.” And, as has been the case for the family farmer and rancher, the situation for shrimpers has drastically changed over the past decades because of a combination of many factors. The bay is a common resource among many interest groups; commercial fishermen and shrimpers are often the least powerful and least organized.
Fifty years ago, more than half of the shrimp in U.S. markets were caught wild in the Gulf. Now, 90 percent are imported from overseas shrimp farms. The Texas Department of Agriculture reports that a low of 1.4 billion pounds to a high of about 1.7 billion pounds of shrimp are imported to the U.S. each year, mainly from Southeast Asian countries, followed by Ecuador and Mexico. (Total U.S. landings, including Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific, come in at around 200 million pounds per year, with the Gulf accounting for a very high percentage of the domestic volume.) This is an enormous discrepancy of domestic shrimp versus imported.
In 1996, there were 7,500 shrimpers on the Texas Gulf Coast; today there are fewer than half that. Fewer boats paired with increased consumer demand for shrimp has led retailers to turn to the cheaper overseas-farmed shrimp, and caused price deflation for local wild-caught shrimp. Growth of tourism, recreational fishing and coastal property gentrification all generate change. And hurricanes, drought, oil-spill contaminations and even recent mandates to install turtle excluder devices in shrimpers’ nets to save endangered turtle species cause acute stresses.
Ultimately, for Gulf shrimping to continue to be a viable industry where future shrimpers can command prices high enough to make a living, enforcement and change in international trade policies and internal laws are needed. This includes higher tariffs for subsidized farmed-shrimp imports, banning chemicals in imports and accounting for environmental degradation by such shrimp farms. Then domestic wild-caught shrimp could compete on a more level playing field, and the proud local shrimping tradition can be preserved for coming generations.
A version of this article appears in Terry Thompson-Anderson’s upcoming book, Texas Terroir: Celebrating the Flavors of the Lone Star State, published by UT Press.
THE LIFE CYCLE OF A SHRIMP
Artwork Courtesy of Texas Department of Agriculture
Three types of shrimp are harvested in the Texas Gulf waters: brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus), white shrimp (P. setiferus) and pink shrimp (P. duorarum). Most shrimp do not survive longer than two years and are thought of as an annual crop. As long as factors like water quality, temperature and salinity are favorable, shrimp multiply copiously and grow fairly fast. Newly hatched shrimp enter estuaries in February and March to settle in their nursery habitats.
Female shrimp spawn in the Gulf at around six months of age—releasing hundreds of thousands of eggs that hatch within 24 hours. Babies ride currents back to the shore, to estuaries where they feed in tidal creeks and marshlands until they grow to about three to five inches. At this point, they migrate into the bays and out to Gulf waters. Following this seasonal cycle, Gulf shrimpers go after adult shrimp in deep, outer waters, while bay shrimpers trawl for young shrimp in the shallow bays. Because the life cycle of the shrimp usually ends within 12 to 18 months, the Gulf is closed to shrimping for two months each year, beginning on May 15th, to protect the juveniles inshore so that they may grow to a larger, more marketable commercial size.
Brown shrimp are the most abundant of the Gulf shrimp species—averaging 60 to 70 percent of total Gulf production. They have a bold, robust flavor, and are most often harvested offshore by large trawlers in deep waters. Brown shrimp can be found throughout the Gulf year-round, with the peak season from May through September.
White shrimp were the first species of commercially important shrimp in the U.S., with recorded fishery dates back to 1709. Prized for their larger size, tender meat and mild, sweet flavor, white shrimp are harvested during the day close to shore in the bays, mostly by smaller, shallow draft boats. Peak season for white shrimp lasts from May through November.
Pink shrimp are the largest of the Gulf shrimp species and are known for their sweet, tender texture. They are most abundant in waters near Florida, but also inhabit Texas Gulf waters.