PORT LAVACA — Mauricio Blanco’s 10 fishing boats are up for sale.
A fisherman for 35 years, Blanco, 50, wants to leave the industry because of the obstacles that have turned the past three years into a frustrating experience.
“It seems no one wants to buy a boat right now,” Blanco said.
The trials and tribulations started when seafood restaurants shut down at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. The business of fishing and oyster harvesting along the Texas Gulf Coast gradually came back until restrictions returned — this time for a different reason.
Most of the oyster reefs along the Texas coast were closed to harvesting beginning this January because the state’s parks and wildlife department determined from its large samples that too many oysters were not market-size.
“We were supposed to work six months during oyster season,” Blanco said. We only worked 70 days.”
Texas’ oyster harvesting season lasts from Nov. 1 to April 30.
When determining bay closures, Texas Parks and Wildlife used the traffic light system, which gives the department the authority to close oyster reefs after studying samples. The department considers an oyster to be legal size for harvesting if it measures at least 3 inches long.
In the current economy, Blanco said his fishing operation can make around $80,000 in six months. Before sharing the revenue with his crew — Blanco collects 30%, and the rest of the crew splits the remainder — and the boat gets repaired.
He said, “$80,000 is nothing when you got a broken down motor. A single motor is going to cost $10,000 if you get it from a junkyard and to put it on, you’re going to pay $6,000-$7,000.”
During the harvesting season, there is no guaranteed income, yet fishermen still have to bear the cost of boat maintenance and the rising price of red diesel fuel, Blanco said.
Meanwhile at home, costs for everyday items have increased, as well, this year.
“We used to go to the grocery store and pay $200 to get groceries for the week,” Blanco said. “Now, its $300, $350. It’s been harder and harder, and it doesn’t seem to relax.”
Blanco and his wife Veronica Blanco, 47, send their son Csar Blanco, 19, through college. Their son studies electrical engineering at Victoria College, a place he said allows him to be more independent as a person because he gets to branch out from Port Lavaca by himself.
“In college I get to have fun and enjoy myself,” the son said.
When the oyster harvesting season comes along, he spends less time with his dad, whose oyster harvesting travels range from Mobile, Alabama, to Corpus Christi.
“I remember one year where there was a New Year’s Eve where I was near Port Arthur,” Mauricio Blanco said. “We sacrifice a lot of family time.”
Blanco’s son said his father’s work on the water is “underrated.”
“My dad sometimes brought us shrimp and oysters to eat, and I’d gotten used to that,” Blanco’s son said. “I didn’t know that shrimp and oysters are rather expensive. It makes me think, ‘How much seafood would we have if my dad wasn’t a fisherman?’”
Because of the oyster harvesting regulations, Blanco is skeptical about whether Texas Parks and Wildlife will keep reefs open for much of the season.
“I can guarantee you one thing, they are going to open everything at the start of the season and then within a week or two, it’s gonna close,” Blanco said.
Now a month and a half away from the harvesting season, one expert said living conditions for Texas oysters are getting better because of a weakening drought.
Jennifer Pollack, a professor of marine biology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, said oysters can adapt to extreme weather events, such as droughts, tropical storms and floods, as long as the effects only last for a short period.
“We in Corpus Christi have seen the spat, which is the oyster larvae, grow more often now that the drought is not as severe,” Pollack said. “Too much salt in water can lead to more disease, and predators from the gulf can come into the bay and stress oysters.”
Blanco thinks the struggles of the past few years could definitely continue into the future, but while he still has his boats and crew to manage, he will keep fishing.
“I’ve got so much salt in my blood,” Blanco said. “That’s what I love to do.”