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Early on a sunny Monday morning, Zach Moser’s 40-foot shrimp boat, Discovery, is docked on Pier 19 in Galveston Harbor. All around him, trawlers and fishing boats unload their catch. “That’s where I sell my shrimp,” Moser says, nodding his head toward the docks. “Bay shrimp is the best shrimp you can buy.”

Today there are a handful of local shops offering head-on, never-been-frozen Galveston Bay shrimp in Houstonia, such as Katie’s Seafood and Sampson & Sons Seafood, both right there on Pier 19, as well as Hillman’s Seafood Market in Dickinson and Seabrook Seafood in Kemah. Nevertheless, the tradition of driving down to the docks to buy shrimp right off the boat is dying.

“Houstonians in their fifties and sixties have told us all these stories about their favorite shrimpers,” says Moser. Today, “more than 90 percent of the shrimp sold in America is farm-raised in Asia.” With Indonesia and India bringing more and more shrimp to the U.S. market than ever before, prices have plummeted by a whopping 33 percent, a number that increases by the day.

As a result, the economics of the business no longer make sense for Galveston Bay shrimping, long the province of individual fishermen or small family operations. With the price of shrimp so low, fishermen can barely afford the fuel and ice it takes to catch them. The amount of Bay shrimp reaching the market is down more than 35 percent.

Consumers ought to prefer local wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf, which makes up much of the rest of what the U.S. consumes. Testing by Consumer Reports and others have shown that farm-raised Asian shrimp is often contaminated with bacteria—including Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia coli and Vibrio harveyi—and contains antibiotics banned here. Our own wild-caught shrimp, in contrast, consistently tests much lower in contaminants.

Moser isn’t your typical Gulf shrimper. In 2011, along with collaborator Eric Leshinsky, he created a public art project called the Shrimp Boat Projects, with the aim of raising awareness of this disappearing Galveston Bay culture. As part of the endeavor, he bought and restored a boat in order to take educational and cultural groups on shrimping trips. After the project ended in 2014, Moser kept shrimping and continued to offer tours, educational projects and art events, all to support a tradition he believes is worth preserving.

Can the shrimping industry be saved? Various groups have launched marketing programs to promote wild-caught Gulf shrimp, but none have made much impact. And unless Houston consumers prove willing to pay a premium for fresh Bay shrimp, the fishery will continue to shrink.

Moser says Maine lobstermen provide a model for saving Galveston Bay shrimp. They formed several New England co-ops that lowered costs by installing their own fuel pumps and ice machines, then obtained higher prices by eliminating the middlemen who were distributing their catches. Today in Maine, you’ll find lobster co-ops with their own retail shops and restaurants selling directly to the public at profitable retail prices.

Moser admits that it’s hard to imagine Texas shrimpers getting together to form a co-op. These salty, sea-going cowboys generally don’t trust anybody, least of all each other. Maybe that will change when the next generation inherits the family shrimp boats.

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