The Endangered Species Act is a controversial directive. The snail darter and spotted owl have gleaned no end of headlines, having been used to justify the preservation of huge areas of habitat. Less well known is the plight of our sea turtles, large amphibians that are in particular danger when they enter the shallows in the spring in preparation for breeding and laying their eggs in beach sand.
Shrimpers towing their nets in these same areas often catch, and occasionally drown, the turtles. Other dangers exist, of course: recreational boaters, plastic debris that the turtles mistake for food, and, more broadly, pollution and beachfront development. Still, it is the shrimpers who bear the burden of environmental legislation, being required to draw turtle excluder devices, otherwise known as TEDs. The TEDs do seem to work, as fewer dead turtles wash up on the beaches. But the devices cut the shrimp catch by 10 to 15 percent, which in hard times can eliminate the profit. Also, the TEDs must be pulled in places where, and seasons when, turtles are seldom caught. Who are threatened more, the turtles or the shrimpers?
That is the question being asked by these Louisiana sociologists, and though at the beginning they claim scientific objectivity, the very fact they are asking at all suggests populist sympathies. The environmental problems are very real, and fishing techniques are indeed wasteful, but why have shrimpers suddenly become the villains? On the Cajun level, at least, they represent a way of life that enforces the dignity of work, community life, self-sufficiency, and pride, as opposed to a powerful environmental movement tainted by elitism and corporate dealing.
The Cajun shrimpers of the Louisiana coast had had enough. Volunteer programs and an alternate design for TEDs were discussed. Meetings were held and more meetings, but the legislation went through anyway. In response, the shrimpers blockaded harbor entrances in an act of civil disobedience. Public sympathy was with the environmentalists. The government has claimed victory, and yet both the turtles and the fishermen are languishing. It is a tangled mess, what we in the shrimping business used to call a “Gaum”: when the net came up wrapped around both “doors,” and the whole was soaked in mud. The conflict does, indeed, seem to have a life of its own.
The authors have done a serviceable job of assembling data, and the concluding essays are excellent. Here we learn: one, how environmental groups tend to pick out winnable projects that bring in public support and funds (saving turtles is simpler than cleaning up our air and water, and much more likely to gain corporate support); two, how two government agencies are both supporting and opposing the shrimpers; three, how the real dangers to the shrimpers are recreational fishermen and a spate of condos and tourists that will soon reduce the Cajun community to relics of local color; and four, how the post-Civil War South has been manipulated by foreign urban (Yankee) capital, to which an analogy can be drawn with English game laws and the survival of “common folks.” Historically, when a sophisticated and wealthy elite comes seeking recreation, the working-class natives are in for a rough time.
This is an insightful and well-written book. As a resident of a small shrimping community (Atlantic coast version), I often found myself nodding along and muttering internally, “Yes, that’s so.” Still, the early chapters are barely linked to each other. A nonacademic approach to the same material would have concentrated on a single Cajun community, or on one shrimper like Tee John, “the Jesus of Shrimpers,” and traced the actions up to the dramatic blockade. That sort of narrative technique is more likely to get the reader to finish the book, while still conveying its point.
[Caught in the Net, by Anthony V. Margavio and Craig J. Forsyth, with Shirley Laska and James Mason (College Station: Texas A&M University Press) 156 pp., $32.50]