Sea of problems: Port Arthur shrimpers contend with loss of generational successors

Published 12:12 am Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Shrimping is the most important commercial fishing industry in Texas, making up 90 percent of the value of the state’s fish products, according to a Houston Business article.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the Lone Star State produced 70.7 million pounds of shrimp in 1982, with an estimated value of $143.5 million. Since the 1950s Texas has remained “consistently ranked among the top three producers of shrimp,” well into the 21st Century.

However, in the last three decades, the shrimping industry has had to face numerous economic problems including the prohibition of fishing in Mexican waters, rising fuel costs, concerns over accidental killing of sea turtles and the overuse of regulations.

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Even Port Arthur’s most loyal generational fishermen are beginning to feel the effects of the declining industry.

An important topic discussed at the Port Arthur Shrimper’s Association annual meeting Thursday included the new generation of shrimpers.

Kyle Kimball, president of the Port Arthur Shrimper’s Association in response simply said, “There aren’t any.”

“There is no replacement of fishermen,” Kimball said. “None. If there is nobody to back us up, it’s over. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Kyle Kimball has been using his boat, “Sea Horse,” to catch shrimp off the Port Arthur coastline for 39 years. 

Kimball is a third generational fisherman following in the footsteps of his grandfather and his father. The Port Arthur native has been in the shrimping business for 39 years alongside his two brothers.

“I love being in the shrimping industry,” he said. “I love going out on the boat and doing everything I do, but my brother has a boy and he wouldn’t get anywhere near a boat. So once our generation is gone, that’s it. There will be no more and that’s with everybody.”

Kimball said the generational loss even pertains to the Vietnamese family owned businesses. According to an article in Houston Business Magazine, 28 percent of active shrimpers are Vietnamese with the “largest concentration in Port Arthur.”

“Right now, everyone is running and going to get into any other career,” Kimball said. “The (government) regulates the industry so heavy that it is putting us out of business. Why get into something that is turning against you at every turn?”

An estimated number of workers engaged in shrimping fishing dropped from 5,072 to 4,571 from 1995 to 1999.

“All of this industry is in danger of disappearing and all that will be left is imports,” Kimball said. “It’s not going to be Gulf Coast shrimp anymore.”

Kimball said the loss of shrimpers will create a domino effect within several other industries falling as well.

“This decline will not only affect us, but a lot of other businesses,” he said. “We won’t need net companies, bait shops, etc. A lot of that stuff will be gone.”

A pile of shrimp is laid out on Kyle Kimball’s boat. 

Father Sinclair Oubre, treasurer for the Port Arthur Shrimpers Association, said the loss of the local shrimping industry would be devastating to the city’s economic hub.

“We’ve got about five shrimp docs that employ people there to assist the shrimpers moving their catch,” he said. “We would lose the shrimp supply stores that we have on Procter Street and Main Avenue. You’d lose sales taxes on all the equipment like the nets, gears and supplies that go on the boats.

“All the equipment that they buy worth thousands of dollars generates sales taxes that go back to the city. We’d lose those men and women who do maintenance on the boats, the techies that do the radios and automatic identification systems will lose their jobs. There are all of these tangential skill jobs that go into maintaining these boats. If they were to not exist we’d lose thousands of jobs.”

Oubre said while around 500 fishermen actually work on the boats, a similar number reflects those who work offshore.

“The challenge is to move the fishing industry into the economic psychology of the city,” he said. “Working on the waterfront, I see people who are always astounded by the ships that go by. Since we don’t place that at the center of our minds, we don’t focus on its economic development, which is saying we don’ t see it as economically valuable.”

As one of the founding organizers of Port Arthur’s Shrimpers Association in1999, Oubre said in order to prevent the loss of jobs and sustain generational workers, the city needs to invest in the future of the trade.

“We invest in welding classes, technology, electricians, etc., but not the maritime sector,” he said. “Only within the last three years have our public institutions actually done training for the maritime industry and that’s just Lamar State College Orange doing a maritime training.

“Even though Southeast Texas is the third largest maritime center in the U.S. by tonnage and Port Arthur is the fourth largest shrimp landing location in Texas, we don’t think in those perspectives and we need to in order to promote this and keep a vital industry alive.”

It’s with a heavy heart that Kimball said, “fishing is only going to be foreign or recreational if we don’t do something soon.”