Dec 30, 2013

Shrimper Fights for the Future of Matagorda Bay

Buddy Treybig, a longtime shrimper on Matagorda Bay, said the fishing there is worse than it has ever been. The drought, combined with increased use of fresh water from the Colorado River, has raised the bay's salinity.

Buddy Treybig, a longtime shrimper on Matagorda Bay, said fishing there has never been harder. Prolonged drought and demand for water upstream in the Austin area have meant less fresh water flowing into the bay, which is essential to the marine life that provides incomes for coastal residents. Photo by Pu Ying Huang.

By Dylan Baddour
For Reporting Texas and The Dallas Morning News

A matrix of shallow, placid streams covers the vast, flat marshland at the mouth of Texas’ Colorado River as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Chewing on a plastic-tipped cigar, Buddy Treybig steers his shrimp boat through muddy, dredged canals and into Matagorda Bay, a body of semi-salty water nearly 30 miles wide that is sheltered from open sea by the Matagorda Peninsula.

Treybig, 52, has been shrimping on the bay since high school. It’s never been harder than now, he says. Dwindling rains, a stubborn drought and more demand for water upriver in Austin have taken a drastic toll on the crabs, shrimp, oysters and fish that provide livelihoods for coastal communities.

“We’re in bad shape already. The shrimp and oysters are almost gone,” said Treybig, a self-appointed defender of the bay and an advocate for people who depend on it to make a living.

Recurring droughts have plagued Texas with particular intensity since 1996, with worsening consequences. In November, voters approved spending $2 billion from state reserves to create a revolving fund for water infrastructure improvements. But most projects will take years to develop, and coastal fishing communities need relief today.

Mitch Thames, director of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce, said he considers Treybig a crucial part of the team that represents Matagorda County interests in state politics.

“He’s our go-to expert … the very best at observing changes in the bays and estuaries,” Thames said. “He’s got a perspective of someone who was raised on the bay, whose father lived on the bay, and who’s been on the bay almost every day for about 45 years.”

Treybig has served on stakeholder and advisory committees for the state Legislature and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He writes columns about growing threats to the bay that have been published in the Houston Chronicle and other newspapers. On board the Elaine Marie, he keeps a folder with 161 pages of letters to and from state agency officials.

Until early this year, he traveled regularly to Austin as a member of an advisory council for the Lower Colorado River Authority, but he became disillusioned with the politics surrounding water and quit.

Matagorda Bay is an estuary, a sheltered place where the gulf and the river mix, and the marine life there needs fresh water to survive. The Colorado is the largest source of that fresh water, but the river’s flow has been declining for years. According to the LCRA, fresh water “inflows into the bay over the past five years have been the lowest of any five year period in recorded history, eclipsing even the historic drought of the 1950s.”

If that flow continues to weaken, and rains don’t increase, the estuary’s ecosystem will be thrown off-balance, ecologists say.

“We can kill an estuary,” said Paul Montagna, a marine ecologist at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi who has studied Matagorda Bay and other estuaries. “We did it with Nueces Bay.”

In 1983, the dam that created Choke Canyon Reservoir northwest of Corpus Christi cut off 48 percent of the fresh water flowing into Nueces Bay, causing large-scale declines in shrimp and oyster populations. The bay has never recovered.

In Matagorda Bay, the Colorado washes down decaying bits of plant and animal matter that feed shrimp larvae, as well as microscopic phytoplankton, a crucial food source for blue crabs, fish and clams that mature among the reeds in the shallow estuary waters.

The river also moderates the bay’s salinity; water that is too salty encourages the growth of parasites and diseases that target oyster reefs, which help keep the bay healthy by filtering water and eating algae.

“When that doesn’t happen, it no longer supports the estuary ecosystem,” Montagna said.

Communities around the bay were shaken in September, when the LCRA proposed to halt, for the first time, periodic releases of fresh water into the bay from the Highland Lakes, the chain of reservoirs west of Austin. The authority’s state-approved water plan requires such releases when rainfall alone isn’t enough.

The lakes provide fresh water for more than 1 million Central Texans. The drought had drained the largest ones to 32 percent of their capacity, and the authority said it didn’t have sufficient water to send any downstream. LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma said the proposal had been intended to head off the threat of mandatory, 20-percent cutbacks for all the authority’s water customers — required when the lakes fall below a certain capacity level.

Heavy rains in October provided a reprieve, lifting Austin out of drought conditions for the first time in three years, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The river authority retracted the proposal, but said the critical shortage could return as early as March.

The bay remains threatened, and there is no guarantee the rains will continue. “The outlook for this winter calls for equal chances of above- and below-normal rainfall, but Texas needs an extended period of above-normal rainfall to break the drought,’’ state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.

Treybig, who owns two seafood markets and employs 90 at an oyster processing plant, doesn’t want his 20-year-old son to become a shrimper.

“There’s no future in it,” he said. “You used to make $150,000 in just your first month on the bay in the 1970s, but now you’re lucky to make $40,000 to $50,000 a year.”

Each year, Treybig has to go farther into the bay to find shrimp. He says shrimping fleets around the bay have dwindled in the last two decades. Big boats that used to spend weeks in the gulf are chained up. Treybig says their owners can’t make enough money to offset the cost of fuel.

Aboard his boat, Treybig pulls a lever to hoist a 20-foot-long net from the water, where he’s been dragging it to show how he catches shrimp. At the bottom is a beachball-size wad of seaweed, small fish, crabs, jellyfish, starfish and a handful of shrimp. On a passing boat, the captain holds up an empty basket to show he’s caught nothing.

After a day on the bay, Treybig sits outside his home with two deckhands, a couple of shift workers from the oyster plant,  his wife and son, and his dog, Lady.

“If this town were incorporated I’d be the mayor for sure,” he said. Without hesitation, everyone nods in agreement.