For more than 40 years, Gary Graham has sought to keep the commercial shrimp fishing industry viable while also keeping the fishery sustainable. His success is both tangible and unfathomable.
Graham’s research into more hydrodynamic fishing gear helped Texas shrimp fishermen save about 9.8 million gallons of fuel valued at $25.7 million during the past four years. The industry realized additional savings through the less frequent need to change oil or complete major engine overhauls. Had this gear not been utilized, many vessels would have been tied up at the docks because they would have been too expensive to operate, costing about 260 people their jobs.
Graham, the Texas Sea Grant College Program’s (TXSG) Marine Fisheries Specialist, is also part of a TXSG team that has helped Texas shrimp fishermen earn $9 million through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Program (TAA). TAA provides money to participants in industries that can document that they have been injured by imports. The amount of money per fisherman is relatively small, up to $12,000, but the program requires that the fishermen participate in training that teaches them how to make their operations run more efficiently. For its work, the TAA team won the Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Region’s Superior Outreach Programming Award for 2010-2012.
Graham’s reputation and expertise has earned him as much respect in academia as it has in the commercial fishing industry. As far as anyone can determine, he is the only full professor (Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences) in the Texas A&M University System who holds just a bachelor’s degree.
Not bad for a man who says he wanted to be a cowboy.
“I wanted to manage public lands. That’s why my college work was focused on rangeland management,” says Graham, who funded his education by working as a commercial shrimp fisherman. “When I got out on the water in a shrimp boat, that was as close to the old west and the open range as anything you could find. But the fences started coming up as my career progressed. It went from open range to fencing in the form of regulations and rules.”
Graham has made his reputation building gates through these regulatory fences so shrimp fishermen could continue their way of life. He led shrimp fisherman across the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1980s to develop, test and adopt their own turtle excluder devices (TEDs) in the face of a federal mandate that would have forced them to use government-designed gear — TEDs that would have been more cumbersome and expensive. He similarly led the effort to develop and test the most efficient bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) when federal law required them in shrimp nets about five years later.
These days Graham finds himself again working with TEDs. For the past 18 months he’s been visiting shrimp fishermen on their boats to make sure their TEDs are properly installed and comply with federal regulations.
Graham says recent data from federal fisheries enforcement officials shows a dramatic improvement in TED compliance. “We still have a ways to go, but compared to the data from a year ago, we have made significant progress,” Graham says emphatically.
The penalties for non-compliance run the gamut from a slap on the wrist to large fines, loss of catch. If the violations are detected in state waters, the boat captains can be ordered to pay restitution for the value catch in addition to having the catch seized.
“I heard of a boat here a few months back that lost a catch worth $40,000 to $60,000,” Graham says.
Even a minor violation — one that does not result in a citation — can result in lost time and production if a boat is forced to return to port to fix the problem.
There is no way to estimate how much money Graham has saved the shrimp fishing industry through his compliance checks and, for him, the dollars and cents are just part of his motivation for going to work each day.
“Something about the water gets in your blood. The work is challenging and the results are beneficial to people and beneficial to the environment,” Graham says. “I spend a lot of time in the field. I like that. My office is the road. After 41 years, I still get excited about the people I work with.”
Media contact: Jim Hiney, Texas Sea Grant, at (979)845-3854