Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine feature story.

At the lapping edge where elements meet, where the Texas land slips under the Texas sea, where the rivers’ sweet water mingles with the Gulf’s salty, an ancient marriage is consummated daily in a tireless honeymoon of natural urges. The air teases with the smell of marshy fertility; Ma and Pa Nature and the old What For. Little creatures by the billions will bubble and squirm from the cell-splitting mystery to become microorganisms or minnows, mollusks or crustaceans, fish or crabs, birds or mammals. Many will survive, others will be sacrificed to the food chain. Some of the survivors will stay in the neighborhood, others will eventually scuttle, swim or fly away to their own rightful habitats of land or sea, near or far. But at birth they all share the same nursery grounds. This is the indispensable role of our sheltered coastal estuaries.

Where are the boundaries of this ecosystem? Does any ecosystem have boundaries, other than the binding curve of the earth itself? The Gulf estuarial habitats are woven from a wide range of influences that continuously pulse and converge from vast distances by all directions. Great sweeping circulations of weather and ocean currents, and long migrations of birds, fish and marine mammals, all pass this way.

The relevant ocean currents move in a serpentine roundabout, coming across the mid-Atlantic from Africa, along the shoulder of South America and into the Caribbean, through the Yucatan Channel, clockwise around the Gulf basin, down the Florida peninsula, east through the Bahamas and northeast up the Atlantic coast as the Gulf Stream. From New England, the current draws northeast across the Atlantic where part of the stream returns to Africa as the West Wind Drift, then turns back and begins the trip all over again. And ever on. It’s not unusual to find Brazilian palm seeds washed up on a Texas beach.

Around the Texas rim of the Gulf bowl this wheel of current has, over the creaking eons, sculpted soil eroded from the mainland into a 350 mile long chain of barrier islands. Runoff pushed sand in, the surf blunted it back and the sidelong current stretched it into the narrow strands we now call Bolivar Peninsula, Galveston Island, Matagorda Peninsula, Matagorda Island, San José Island, Mustang Island, and the longest barrier island in the world, Padré. Behind these buffering sandbars and within our six sheltered bay systems lives a marine nursery of diversity and productivity equal to, or richer than, the celebrated Chesapeake Bay. The unique combination of mild winter climate, protected shallow water, silt bottom, minimal tidal variance and freshwater inflow creates a marvel of an incubator for aquatic life. Each part of the whole is vital, but most vital of all is freshwater.

Only 3% of the earth’s fixed supply of water is freshwater, and most of that is frozen in the polar regions or absorbed in underground aquifers. The remaining fraction of one percent is in constant motion. It evaporates to clouds, condenses as precipitation, drains to the rivers, flows to the seas and repeats the cycle perpetually, always leaving and always returning, riding the big weather train, making the rounds. It often seems Texas gets either too much or too little, flood or drought. Estuary conditions are always in flux and balance is seldom perfect.

Dr. Rick Tinnin of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas has studied the habitat for over 25 years and lived near it most of his life. He knows all its variables, natural and manmade:

“Even with the threats of pollution, overfishing and development, still the most critical factor is freshwater inflow. It’s absolutely essential to the life cycles of most everything in the estuary, from the lowliest mud worm to the whooping cranes. It creates the zone of reduced salinity necessary for the reproduction phases of several key species. Without freshwater inflow the habitat as we know it would cease to exist.”

A quick glance at a topographic map shows the long reach of the inland watershed. From the high plains of West Texas the land breaks away on a southeastern tilt in an intricate lacework of converging washes, creeks and rivers, all gathering runoff and sending it toward the Gulf coast. XX major river systems flow into the Gulf, but all are dammed and tapped along the way for ever-growing human demands. In years of normal or better rainfall, the inflow still sustains reasonably well. In drought times, the habitat and its dependents suffer.

For example, blue crab reproduction depends a favorable fresh/salt mix. If the crab population declines, a ripple effect travels up the food chain—young crabs are a favorite forage of black drum, redfish and the endangered whooping cranes. And adult crabs are a favorite of humans as well, representing 20% of the Texas commercial seafood harvest. The same is true for shrimp, which supply 61% of the commercial harvest, plus prime dining for dozens of larger marine species. To assign a dollar value, these habitats are the lifeblood of a 26 billion dollar commercial and sport fishing industry, and in recent years, also a fast-growing multi-billion dollar eco-tourism industry. (Thousands of bird enthusiasts from all over the world visit the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and other wildlife sanctuaries scattered along the Gulf coast.) Taken as a whole, the Gulf bays and estuaries are the state’s most valuable natural resource.

 

THE VIEW FROM THE EDGE

At the boggy fringes of the coastal plain, a low sun turns mud to gold as the moon’s gravity gently pulls water off the tidal flats. Knee deep in the faint current, stilt-legged wading birds stalk the small fishes riding the outflow; dagger beaks strike and prey is swallowed wiggly whole. Coveys of smaller shorebirds poke at the shallows for other slimy delicacies. Above it all an osprey wheels in the yellow sky. As if shot dead in flight, its wings collapse and the hawk plummets to the water, only to rise, flapping spray and clenching a stunned fish in its talons. This is the hour of beaks and claws and sharp little teeth, the eternal lunge and dodge of the eaters and the eaten.

Meanwhile, at the top the food chain, humans also begin to feed as twilight fades. They gather over heaping plates of seafood, mostly unaware of the side dish of implications that comes with every meal. It can be argued that Americans have too much to eat at prices too cheap. In the case of seafood, the real bill may come due at some later date. Relentless demand for more-and-cheaper invites overfishing, which not only depletes fishery stocks faster but also worsens the problem of “by-catch”—the unmarketable marine creatures inadvertently swept up in the dragnets and ultimately tossed. By-catch now ranges from 30 to 60 percent of total catch weight. Shrimp nets are required to have Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) which allow sea turtles to escape, but some shrimpers claim tons of shrimp are also lost through the devices. (Loose talk on the docks is, maybe a few TEDs get tied shut once in awhile. Accidentally, of course.)

And other human effects trickle down. Agricultural and lawn chemicals leach into the habitat. A shameful amount of garbage drifts about, always ugly but sometimes deadly. A giant loggerhead turtle, old and wise by sea turtle standards, may confuse a plastic bag for a tasty jellyfish, a bottlenose dolphin might gulp what appears to be a juicy squid but is actually a discarded rubber glove, or a hapless shorebird might noose itself in a mess of old fishing line—innocent mistakes all, and usually fatal. Some of the sick or injured animals are rescued by groups such as Animal Rescue Keep (ARK) in Port Aransas. ARK Rehabilitation Coordinator Andrea Wickham-Rowe oversees a menagerie of recovering marine animals and birds, including many sea turtles:

“Every existing species of sea turtle is classified as either threatened or endangered. Nets are a major problem. Being air-breathers, if they get trapped in a dragnet they drown. We want a better rapport with the shrimpers but it’s a slow process.”

Writer Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But the irony here is that a healthy ecosystem is the best salary guarantee a commercial fisherman could ask for.

And always in the background is the possibility that a barge loaded with oil, gasoline, diesel, benzene or any of dozens of other toxic petroleum products could breach and spill. Dredged through the heart of the estuaries is the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, (GIW) a manmade canal 125 feet wide and 12 feet deep that hugs the coastline all the way from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville. The Texas segment is 426 miles long and carries barge traffic serving the refineries and petrochemical plants scattered along the way. About 40% of the nation’s petrochemical products are produced on the Texas coast and most of it travels the GIW.

It’s hard to imagine any habitat on the planet where the needs of nature and the enterprises of man overlap with such complexity and intimacy. (For example, barges pass through the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the only remaining winter habitat for the only surviving migrating flock of whooping cranes.) In the darkest days of industrial pollution, much of Galveston Bay became a flammable dead zone and many feared it was a harbinger for the entire coast, but stricter laws have since led to a dramatic recovery and benefited all the coastal habitats. At the moment, the various elements of nature and industry along the coast manage to coexist as well as can be expected under the circumstances. But defenders of the ecosystem live with permanently crossed fingers.

It’s unlikely the debate over the GIW will ever fade. Besides the risks involved in petrochemical traffic, periodic maintenance dredging is required, to the tune of about eight million cubic yards annually, which stirs up ultra-fine silt and clouds the water for long periods creating problems for marine life. Some believe the spoil islands formed by the relocated mud foster bird life but others dismiss this as a dismally poor trade-off. (Plans are afoot to find ways to move future dredge spoil away from the estuaries.) Some believe the canal disturbs the fresh/salt balance, others claim it permits a healthier circulation. Both sides chant the holy mantra of Jobs Creation, but lately the eco-friendly tourism and recreation economy is the up-and-coming horse in this race.

If the canal had never been dug, would estuary life be more abundant? Presumably so. Could any imagined reclamation project turn back the clock? Probably not. Which brings us to the waters where the GIW is most controversial.

Along the southern stretch of Padré Island, where Texas curves on the Gulf like a cupped hand, is the Laguna Madré. This 125 mile long shallow lagoon lies between Padré Island and the mainland, from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. Here the ecosystem is based on a different circumstance. Whereas all the estuaries to the north depend on freshwater inflow, the Laguna Madré is a hyper-saline environment. The Laguna’s salt content is higher than the ocean itself, caused by the fast evaporation rate of shallow water in a hot climate, lack of significant freshwater inflow, and limited circulation with the Gulf.

But the Laguna’s briny flats teem with life adapted to the conditions, including speckled trout and redfish, the rare peregrine falcons and piping plovers, and in winter, most of the North American population of redhead ducks. Widespread seagrass beds are the meal ticket here. The seagrass provides food for the redhead ducks and shelter for all kinds of small creatures the gamefish feed on. Seagrass can’t live without sunlight, and maintenance dredging of the canal muddies the water, hence the conflict. In fact, south of Corpus Christi barge traffic drops off significantly, begging the question of the economic necessity of the GIW. Defenders of the ecosystem advocate closing that section of the canal. If it were closed, the resulting higher fuel costs in far South Texas could be offset by the booming sport fishing industry. Pro and con, the beat goes on.

 

A MATTER OF BALANCE

Environmentalists are routinely accused of favoring nature over people, as if the two were unconnected. But disputes and all, it should be said that the Gulf coast environment is amazingly resilient. Barring a major catastrophe, it still manages to provide for all its dependents, both animal and human. Here are a few random examples of people who live by the resources of the Texas coast:

Kevin Desormeaux is a two-for-one example. He’s a petroleum industry employee who does a fair bit of shrimping on the side. He fishes out of Galveston Bay on his trawler “Gottageaux,” a neat white boat trimmed in black. Originally from Louisiana and with obvious Cajun roots, Desormeaux looks the part in jeans and Astros cap. He says the shrimp crop seems good, although (as of January) sizes are running a bit small.

“So far, it’s a good season. I’ve been able to catch my limit right out here without having to leave the ship channel. But the wholesale buyers just cut the price by half, though. Makes it kinda tough.”

It’s been a good year for freshwater inflow after two years of drought. Supply is up and apparently the seafood buyers are looking to capitalize.

Down at Rockport, sport fishing is a vital part of the economy. The docks are lined with charter boats and over 200 fishing guides operate out of the Port Aransas/ Rockport area. Gene Rothanburg, happy to have left the snows of his native Minnesota behind for good, runs a wharfside bait shop, dispensing fishing advice along with live shrimp:

“The reds are fishing real good right now… some specks, some sheepshead, but people mainly go for the redfish. There’s been some nice big ones come in lately.”

Kyle Lafreniere has dropped by the bait shop to shoot the breeze with Rothanburg. Lafreniere is a fishing guide who specializes in bay and flats fishing, by boat or wading. Fly fishing the flats for redfish is especially hot now and is Lafreniere’s preferred style:

“It’s the most fun kind of fishing… you find the redfish tailing in shallow water (feeding heads down, tails breaking the surface) … you pick one and cast ahead of it (called sight-casting). Work the fly a tiny bit and if he goes for it, hang on.”

The coastal communities also host big numbers of seasonal residents called Winter Texans who, like the migratory birds, come to escape the hard northern winters. Strolling a South Padré beach in a T-shirt, Winter Texan Charlie Mistek, another Minnesotan, seems unfazed by a stiff January wind that has the other beach walkers zipped up in jackets.

“I consider myself very lucky to be able to come here every winter. The surf fishing is good, the weather’s nice, the people are great… I love it here.”

It’s a feeling widely shared. The Texas Gulf coast is beloved by millions of people, utterly essential to millions of creatures, and grand proof that water is the elemental life force. Whether to protect it or not should be beyond debate.