Deep in the Heart of Texas’ Troubled Waters

Along the last several miles of Interstate 45 is a fiery orange sign with prominent golden letters reading “Eat Galveston.” Local restaurant advertisements line the freeway boasting fresh-caught bay seafood. With an estimated 6.4 million visitors in 2015, tourism is the second largest job supplier on the island, followed closely by hospitality, according to documents put together for the city.

Source: City of Galveston via Tourism Economics

Seawall restaurants, like Gaido’s Seafood, rely on the benefits tourism brings to Galveston’s hospitality industry. The company began in 1911 and is still family-owned and operated. Going on four generations, it is one of few that serves fresh-caught seafood from the bay.

So, when executive chef Luis Martinez realized he had no red fish available, he said he would have to tell his parties, “I don’t have any.”

But it’s not just red fish; it’s snapper and flounder, too, he said.

“This is the worst week I’ve seen on availability,” he said. “I need 300 pounds of flounder — today,” thumping his index finger into the table, “and I’ve got 225. What am I going to about that? And the next day?”

The low availability of flounder can stem from environmental issues, said Katie Westmoreland, an undergraduate researcher at Texas A&M University Galveston. They need a delicately balanced environment in which to flourish, she said, and with warmer winters than usual it can be difficult for the fish to repopulate.

“The flounder larvae cannot survive hot temperatures,” she said. “We think that once they’re spawning, a lot of the larvae are dying and not going out and recruiting back to the fishery.”

She said when it comes to the low yields, Martinez is going to see it “really bad next year.”

And the consensus stands for these biologists: the cause of this rising temperature is climate change.

The issue of climate change can be an emotional one, said Heather Scherr, an associate professor of biology at Lone Star College — Kingwood. She said she knows many good people who feel demonized by climate change activists and would rather write it off completely.

“If we can be less attacking on both ends,” she said, “it’s going to help a lot. Because then everyone can work together to transition to another energy economy.”

But, she said, the fact of the matter is: it’s real. And there are ways to access the data, she said, thanks to the internet. But, there are groups who are using this to put out agendas, and it’s a time investment to find credible data, she said.

“You’re looking for things that cite sources,” she said. “You’re looking for the .gov sources, and usually they have a list of sites and reliable sources.”

The way the ocean works, explained Elaine Shen, a member of Rice University’s oceans club, is the water absorbs carbon dioxide. As more carbon dioxide is emitted and the planet’s temperature rises, the ocean’s rises with it, she said. But the carbon dioxide changes it in other ways as well, she said.

It makes the ocean more acidic, she said, and the changes in pH levels are especially harmful to coral reefs. They’re also sensitive to changes in temperature, pollutants, and other stressors, she said.

“As we know, coral reefs are home to thousands and thousands of marine organisms,” she said, “and support most of the ocean that we use for fisheries, for tourism, and things like that.”

Shen said that more acidic oceans also have a harder time breaking down chemicals, and marine life have more difficulties surviving in these conditions. She said that pollutants could drive sea life further from shores where people rely on fishing to stimulate the economy.

There are other issues with the water that Martinez has attributed to causing low and poor availability of fish. Flounder is not the only seafood with which he has problems. He said he’s had issues securing oysters and snapper as well. Part of his grievance though, he said, is the poor quality of the fish.

“They harpoon the fish,” he said. “The line cuts it. Has worms. Small in size, that I shouldn’t be using. Wrong fish; old fish; not iced fish. The truck A/C is not working. Drivers mishandling fish. Oysters on top of the ice. I can go and on.”

Martinez said he’s concerned about what he’s feeding his customers, so much so that he sends back nearly a third of the meat he orders. When this happens, he said he has no choice but to remove options from his menu.

“I don’t purposely send fish back,” he said. “I’m a quality kind of guy, and I want to make sure the fish that I get is my spec — what I ask for.”

He said this problem runs deep into the community and economy, not affecting just his restaurant. He said there are many people at risk: the drivers who transport the meat, the ice suppliers, the workers who shuck oysters, and the fishermen. When his providers offered to ship him frozen fish from Florida, he said it “upsets me.”

“It upsets me because the people who can do something about it, they use that as an ‘Oh, we can export it from next door. Give the money over to another state,’” he said. “What about our state? What about here? Why don’t we do something here so we can take care of what we need to take care of?”

And oysters are especially tricky for him, he said, because they take several years to mature for consumption.

Not only do they take years, Westmoreland said, but the quality of the water they’re in is a huge factor on how they’ll taste. She said oysters are filter feeders, so since they eat whatever is in the water, having clean water is of the utmost importance.

“There are areas in the ship channel where I’m required to wear waders, if I get in the water, because of pollutants that have leached out or been dumped into the water,” she said. “And that’s a really scary thought for me because you have a lot of people that are eating seafood out of this bay. Fish don’t stay in one area of the bay.”

Katie Westmoreland, an undergraduate researcher at Texas A&M University Galveston, spent several years working sea turtle patrol and cleaning the bay’s waters. Researchers at TAMUG are actively working to test the water and save wildlife from what could be their ultimate demise — pollution.
“One of the worst things that can get into the ocean are those mylar balloons — the silvery, crinkly ones,” she said. “They just don’t degrade, and sea turtles love them.”

Martinez said unclean water is one of his biggest complaints about the beach area and tourists. Although he said he recognizes the importance of tourists for the city, he doesn’t appreciate the trash left behind along the beaches.

“You will see a multitude of trucks that come in and unload 20 people per truck,” he said, “and their only job is to pick up litter. All the way across. I’ll walk over there and say, ‘Hey, how long have you been doing this for?’ ‘All night, Chef.’ ’Cause they know who I am!”

Although the island has a pollution prevention page, it doesn’t address the issue of trash on the beach. The Galveston Bay Foundation gave trash and litter efforts an “I” — insufficient data — because “there is no systematic Bay-wide monitoring to reduce this kind of pollution.”

Martinez wants the city to do more, he said, and he’s concerned about the debris that stays in the water. Each week when the mayor comes to eat at Gaido’s, he said they talk about the dirty beaches. It’s gotten to the point that he bought a woman and her family lunch because of something they found along the beach, he said.

“She said, ‘You know, we just came from over there,’” he said, “‘and our kids were in the water. And we found a whole bag of dirty diapers — in the water.’”

Martinez couldn’t believe the pictures when he saw them, he said. He was so shocked, he said he told his bartender to buy the family food.

And, Martinez is not the only Galveston resident who has noticed the trash along the beach.

Westmoreland said she always sees trash along the beach — especially cigarette butts. She said she wants people to pick up their trash as they go.

“If everyone did a little bit of their own part, it contributes to the greater good,” she said. “You may not think you’re doing your part just as one person, but if everybody did their own little part then that adds up after a while.”

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