Chronicling MCND#1’s 75th Anniversary:
Changes in the early shrimping industry brought challenges to the Navigation District
Although Palacios suffered during the war years of the 1940’s, losing a number of the town’s young soldiers, enduring rationing and blackouts, and weathering a major ice storm and several hurricanes, it seemed that the town’s spirits could not be dampened for long. Camp Hulen and its USO were in full swing and the shrimping industry continued to pick up steam.
As early as 1931, shrimpers supported season closures during nursery periods to allow small shrimp to develop. In 1941, shrimpers lobbied for the first coast wide spring season closure in inland waters. By the 1950’s, two separate shrimp fisheries developed in Texas, based on the kind of shrimp of commercial importance to each fishery. One was the bay fishery that focused largely on the white shrimp that developed in the spring and remained as adults in the bays. The 1959 Shrimp Conservation Act defined an open fall season in the bays from August 15 through December 15 for harvesting mature white shrimp by bay fishermen. The second shrimp fishery was the Gulf of Mexico where shrimpers harvested adult brown shrimp that also developed in the bays in the spring, but unlike white shrimp, migrated as juveniles to the Gulf.
Shrimp production increased steadily in Palacios and Matagorda County Navigation District #1 put a plan to build a second turning basin into action. Docks were soon filled with an abundance of newly built shrimping boats, but controversy was never far from the shrimpers minds as a result of the diverse methods of bay shrimpers as opposed to Gulf shrimpers. In the bay nurseries, white and brown shrimp tended to be in different areas so that bay shrimpers could harvest small brown shrimp while minimizing the catch of young white shrimp. Gulf shrimpers opposed this practice because it reduced the number of shrimp that could successfully migrate to the Gulf. In 1963, the Texas Legislature amended the Shrimp Conservation Act to allow for a limited spring season from May 15 through July 15. Bay shrimpers also accepted gear restrictions on minimum net mesh size, which allowed small shrimp to escape the pull of the nets.
Palacios’ shrimpers, along with shrimpers from Eastern shores all the way to the Bay of Campeche in Mexico, were enjoying the new status of shrimp as a popular ingredient on American menus. Shrimp appeared in cocktails, stews and Jell-O recipes. Restaurants, like local Peterson’s, served them up fried, broiled, boiled, grilled, smoked, baked skewered and barbecued. Life was good in Palacios and then, in the early fall of 1961, Mother Nature struck in the form of Hurricane Carla.
The most intense hurricane to make landfall on the Texas coast in the 20th century, Carla struck just south of Palacios on September 11th with Category 4 fury and sustained winds of 145 mph. The port’s two turning basins quickly became a harbor of refuge for bay and Gulf shrimping vessels, including home port vessels and those caught too far from home. The storm’s devastating effects displaced trawlers, tugs, fish houses, homes and most of the population of Palacios. It also finished wiping out the canning plant. The Navigation District faced one of the most formidable tasks in its history – the rebuilding of its docks and wharves.
Shrimpers are typically, by nature, resilient, patient and have a steadfast work ethic. But the decade had not been an easy one. Carla, the aftermath and cleanup and rebuilding of lives and properties, Beulah, and the Vietnam War were difficult events for the people of Palacios. The war was barely over when a new kind of fisherman made an appearance in the port’s harbor.
Roughly 2 million people fled South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, with about a third settling in the United States. Often fleeing by boat, many families fell prey to pirates and lost all their possessions – and often their lives. Those who wound up in the United States settled in communities with American sponsors. Word spread that shrimping on the Texas coast was a profitable industry that didn’t require mastery of the English language or unfamiliar job skills.
Fishing communities along the Texas coast were forever changed when the quiet but industrious refugees began arriving in the mid-70’s. At first able to afford only old boats, the Vietnamese worked hard and pooled their resources to buy new ones. They angered some of the local shrimpers who claimed the Vietnamese violated local fishing customs and depleted the shrimp population. Between 1976 and 1983, the number of shrimping licenses nearly doubled.
At the root of much of the conflict was a Vietnamese work ethic that focused on the family, not the individual, all of whom worked long hours to make their shrimp business profitable. The bay fishery soon became the primary domain of the Vietnamese-built and owned vessels. Since overhead is minimal compared to that of Gulf trawlers, bay shrimpers need net far fewer shrimp to make a profit. It didn’t take long for the new immigrants to transfer their abilities to the larger trawlers and head into the Gulf. Names like Nguyen, Tran and Vu became common in the harbor and their families integrated into Palacios schools, businesses and the local Catholic Church.
In 1979, annual median incomes of shrimp boat captains ranged from $15,000 to $25,000 and upward. Riggers and headers, particularly for Gulf trips, were also clearing a good wage. New bay and Gulf boats began to proliferate in the Palacios harbor. Some Palacios families were now spawning a second generation of successful fishermen, including the Seamans, Bates, Wallises, Kunefkes, Garcias and Aparicios. The Navigation District was home to a couple of shipyards where maintenance could easily be obtained and fish houses for unloading, transporting, icing and storing shrimp ringed the two turning basins. Talk among the District’s Commissioners began to turn to the need for even more dock space. Soon after, a double basin harbor was designed and, in 1982, Turning Basin No. 3 took shape to the west of the entrance to the other two basins.
The Port of Palacios had established itself as an economic engine for the community in the 1920’s and 1930’s and was, by the 1980’s, a hub of port-related businesses and maritime jobs. The vast improvements to the harbor and reasonable dock rent attracted tenants and boats from other Texas ports, as well as Louisiana and Alabama. Matagorda County Navigation District #1’s mission of “serving customers and taxpayers by maintaining and developing safe navigation and marine facilities in an efficient and cost-effective manner” produced a history of stimulating economic development and creating jobs in the community. But it would soon find itself, as a driver of job creation, taking a back seat to the tremendous economic boom brought to Matagorda County as a result of the South Texas Nuclear Project. The changes and challenges in store for MCND#1 and Palacios had only begun.