Palacios, TX port, self-proclaimed shrimp capital of Texas

Shrimp School in Freeport, taught by Gary Graham, Texas Sea Grant, accompanied by props like TEDs (Turtle Excluder Devices) and BRDs (Bycatch Reduction Devices)

Brownsville to Freeport, TX, about 350 miles

Nothing but shrimp boats and supporting infrastructure at the Brownsville and Port Isabel fishing ports. Can gated communities and razor wire coexist?

South Padre Island, a strange place with gated communities and tattoo parlors, giant condos, and a road with five miles of beautiful beach waiting for the next real estate bubble.  There’s another 40-50 miles beyond the end of the road. I have no idea what kind of protection it has. Padre Island National Seashore is a different island to the north.

Brownsville-Port Isabel, TX by the Numbers

Pounds landed

2010  22.7M

2000  29.2M

Value landed

2010  $52.5M

2000  $88.6M

Price per Pound

2010  $2.31

2000  $3.03

Rank by value

2010   15

2000     4

Population 2010

Brownsville  175,000

Port Isabel      5.000

Top species 2010


and more shrimp


Brownsville   0.3/1000 (not touristy)

Port Isabel     3.8/1000 (touristy)

[South Padre Island   18.6/1000 (off the chart)]

The Gulf (mostly for fish geeks and wannabes)

The US coastline of the Gulf of Mexico is 1631 miles, roughly the distance from Portland, ME to Miami, FL. If you include all the bays and inlets, the distance increases 10-fold. I can certainly see that from the maps I’ve been looking at—hence the attraction of ferries. My route is around 700 miles, about a third or so of the total. Almost all of that is in Texas.

Fisheries landings in the Gulf region were worth around $630M in 2009, about 16% of the US total. The Gulf was the third region by value, after the North Pacific (lots of species, including crabs, salmon, pollock, and halibut) and New England (super-popular scallops and lobsters).  For the Gulf, the money species is and has been shrimp. Forget that blackened redfish, those groupers and snappers.  Shrimp is what people are willing to pay big money for. Or were willing to. Competition from cheap farm-raised imported shrimp has driven the price shrimpers can command down dramatically in the last 10 years. (I can feel another post coming on contrasting what American fishermen catch and what Americans eat.)  Shrimp prices decreased 33% per pound in real dollars. Total revenue from shrimp decreased 50% in real dollars.  This drastic reduction is reflected in the fishing port statistics. In 2000, 10 of the top 20 fishing ports in the US were in the Gulf (two were menhaden ports). In 2010, the Gulf was down to five in the top 20, (one menhaden port). After shrimp, the next most valuable species are oysters and blue crabs, both much more valuable than any fish species. (Except menhaden. I’ll write about menhaden later.)

When I made my roadtrip plans, I hadn’t found the map below yet. I did my analysis based on 2010 data from NMFS charts, then started looking at maps. Key West was too far from anywhere, so a trip starting in Texas and ending in Louisiana made sense. The 2010 NMFS database didn’t show anything in AL. But the map does. At some point it hit me—2010 wasn’t just the most recent data from NMFS. It was the year of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf.  For many fishermen in the Gulf, the word “disaster” is far too mild.  The hardest hit major port was Bayou La Batre, at the mouth of Mobile Bay. It dropped from 24th in the country in 2009 to 86th in 2010, all but taking it off the charts (fish geek alert: I think the data behind the map are actually from 2009).  Of course many ports too small to show up in the charts were wiped out as well, along with their fishermen. As for the major ports, nearby (but away from the oil) Dulac/Chauvin, LA dropped as well, from 10th to 19th. Two ports well outside the oiled areas, Port Arthur and Key West actually went up in the rankings. The other Texas ports seemed unaffected.  The graph of Bayou La Batre’s landings over the years below shows the staggering impact of the Deepwater Disaster.

Tomorrow I get up very early for a flight to Brownsville. I’m looking forward to finally hearing about the human side of all these statistics and seeing what the fishermen are catching. And eating some of it.

from NMFS, Fisheries of the United States 2010

Does any phrase other than “fell off a cliff” capture this?


I really enjoy travel planning. I especially love filling in blank spots on maps, finding and visiting unknown or vaguely located places. The only place I’ve been to on this Gulf trip is Galveston, for a conference maybe 15 years ago. The conference was so boring I can’t remember for sure what it was about, and all memories of Galveston have fled as well. It’s easy to find Brownsville on the map, since it’s always identified as on the Mexican border. I’ve heard of Port Arthur, likely because it’s the home of Janis Joplin, but I had no idea where it was (turns out to be almost Louisiana). I’ve never even heard of Palacios, Texas or Dulac and Chauvin, Louisiana.  One of the best things about the fishing port road trip is it will take me to a lot of places I would otherwise be unlikely to visit.

On this trip, one of the key objectives was finding places no more than about a five hour drive apart, so I can have half a day or so in each of them. Once I had the list, the fun part of the planning started. My daughter Elizabeth, newly addicted to trip planning, says it is like the pleasure you get solving a puzzle.  Exactly.  With to find hotels (and tripadvisor to review them), for “award travel,” kayak again for car rentals (yikes, one way dropoff charges are a killer), trip planning is a lot easier than even ten years ago.  Because I was focused on the destinations, I quickly sorted out these details a few months ago.

But trip planning can lock you in mentally—I’ve got a schedule and program laid out for my fishing ports, by god, and I’m going to follow it. It can easily become all about the destinations.  But this is a road trip. In my original calculations, I just let google maps pick the most direct route between the ports. Now that I’m about to embark, I’ve been actually looking at the routes google picked for me. It’s taking me on fast highways, of course. Like I-10, one of the least interesting roads in America. A closer look at the map shows me ferries. Google avoids ferries. I love ferries! A conversation with my boss Andy Sharpless on my last day in the office clinches this altered perspective. While discussing my North Carolina fishing ports, he asks if I’m planning to drive from Nags Head to Ocracoke, then take the ferry to Swanquarter (one of my ports).  Why no, I’m not, I answer. You really should, he advises. Now I am, my Ocracoke ferry ticket purchased today (planning required, following NC Ferries’ advice). And I’ve noticed for July planning that Mount Rainier is conveniently located between two ports in Washington.

I can’t let myself forget that visiting fishing ports was the EXCUSE for the road trip, not the REASON for the road trip. I’ve never subscribed to the old cliché that it’s all about the journey, not the destination, but I do need to remember it’s about both.  So the planned route now goes through Sabine Pass, not on I-10, with a lunch detour to Lafayette, LA, recently voted “best food town in the USA” in something called the “Rand McNally/USA TODAY Best of the Road Rally” (thanks Simon!). I had already scheduled time for the non-fishing-port of New Orleans, as lagniappe for my trip.  I’m not so rigid that I’m completely oblivious to opportunity.

But avoiding interstates and seeking out ferries, mountains, and great cities is still planning and scheduling. Today I get a reminder that I also have to plan for surprises and opportunities. One of the folks I’m hoping to meet up with writes to ask if I can juggle my schedule to go out on a shrimp boat with him. It means a different port, disrupting to my just completed schedule. I say yes in a heartbeat. It’s all about having appropriate priorities.

This is the google map route, one night in each location starting May 8. Test your geographical skills.

Restaurant/market in Oxnard Harbor

Restaurants and markets of Ventura and Port Hueneme