Turning the Tide, or at least trying to

This post comes to you from Shrimp Boat Projects

The shrimp fleet at Hillman’s Seafood on Dickinson Bayou. One of the few remaining visual cues that shrimping was once a thriving industry on Galveston Bay.

We just got back from Foodways Texas‘ annual symposium event, an incredible gathering that brings together a real variety of people whose work and interests connect them to food as a cultural force. As we learned in attending last year’s symposium in Galveston, this event ends up being much more than a discussion of food traditions and regional culinary practices (although that would probably be pleasant enough). What this event fosters is a rare conversation that engages the key questions of regional culture both broadly and specifically– what is it? why does it matter? where does it come from? what are people doing to appreciate it? It’s a true interdisciplinary discussion that requires a real cross-cutting knowledge.

We were honored to be asked to give a talk about our project within this year’s symposium theme “Preserved”, but humbled by the challenge of this.  We always acknowledge that we are not trying to save the shrimping profession, we are not trying preserve its culture as an artifact, and frankly, we don’t even like to freeze the shrimp we catch!

Of course preserving something, does not need to imply that it becomes static. And with this, we could acknowledge that what we are interested in preserving are the conditions–political, economic, social– that once allowed primary producers (farmers, ranchers, as well as shrimpers and other commercial fishermen) to earn a decent living in confidence, as these ways of working in direction connection to the land are the root of dynamic regional culture. Or alternatively, how do we preserve regional culture as something that is dynamic and not rendered as the content of static museums?

To help us answer these questions, we had met Priscilla Weeks last spring just as we were embarking on our project. An environmental anthropologist working with the Houston Advanced Region Center (HARC), Pris has done a ton of research over the years on coastal communities, both on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, which tries to assess the threats to fishing-reliant communities and the consequence of declining fishing industries, not just economically but also socially and culturally. Her research, both in the data she’s accumulated and the frameworks she’s developed for understanding the situation, really help clarify that the decline of small-scale commercial shrimping here on Galveston Bay is not unique. It’s part of much larger pattern and really, very little is being done to turn the tide of this. We thought that if we could offer any food for thought to a gathering of food-minded people, it would be to both explain what is exactly at stake in losing the work of bay shrimping and so many other small-scale food production industries, and what we believe needs to happen to truly reverse the trend.

So we asked Pris to join us in making this case and we all went up to Austin to present a talk entitled “The Work of Gulf Coast Regional Food Culture”, which was a small nod to a great essay by Wendell Berry entitled “The Work of Local Culture” where he explains that the existence of local culture relies on the accrual of knowledge that comes from working on the land and dedicating yourself to a place.

With this introduction, here’s an excerpt from our talk (the part delivered by Zach):

“Well so the state of the Shrimp Fishery is clear, it is in rapid decline and in all likelihood will end as a way of life with the next generation of shrimpers not joining the fleet.

We are here today because we believe that embodied in the demise of the shrimp industry is the demise of regionally specific cultures in the face of global capitalism.   With this demise we are not just losing one of the major parts of life that makes it interesting ( “variety as the spice of life” if you will) but also our identities and the potential for an ecologically responsible future.  We are interested in preserving the specificity of gulf coast culture and its potential for a better future.

How do we do this?  What is Gulf Coast culture?  Who gets to define it?
We are more clear on what we do not want to do.  We do not want to save a defined cultural identity. Cultural preservation should not be limited to the practice of curating the cultural attitudes, behaviors, and artifacts of a subjective definition of the region.   This way of looking at culture creates static museums where cultural artifacts lose their meaning to everyday life and become relics of an imagined past.  It turns what we value into commodities to be sold back to us. It allows others free reign to essentialize and degrade what we value.

For defining culture we are interested in culture as an idea, understood through examining our relationship to the land.  Gulf Coast culture is then the relationship to the specific landscape of our region with all of the problems and beauty that we express onto this land.   We do not want to preserve this either as we do not want more refineries or wetlands lost.  Instead we want to preserve the potential for a better future, a richer culture, one that maintains and strengthens a relationship with the land.

We believe that the only way to preserve this potential for culture, as some of you might, is through food.  Not by preserving recipes or even ingredients but by saving small scale food production. We believe that if we want an ethical, sustainable, regionally specific culture we need to preserve the ability for people to have a way of life producing food through a connection to the land.  These are the ways of life that make regional culture specific and unique and with their connections to the land they hold the potential for an ecologically responsible future.  These ways of working are threatened from all directions as you have heard today about shrimping and they need to be preserved.

The local food movements and organic food movements make claims towards a connection to producers but these movements do not have the potential to save regional culture as a living and dynamic part of modern life. This is great work don’t get me wrong.  It has been the only way we could keep shrimping.  But these movements are not enough to save regional culture for two reasons:

First of all the profits and markups of these new markets are not making it to primary producers. The markup is at the distributor and at the restaurants. In addition these markets are tiny only allowing a few people in at a good price. With a little competition the price falls out again. The farmers, ranchers, and fishermen,  I know who have been able to gain access to these markets still just barely hang on.  As a primary producer going organic and/or local does not shield you from global commodity markets.

Secondly these movements have the potential to turn the remnants of these ways of life into more sanitized versions of working class cultures.  (Eric and I being prime examples) A culture connected to the land should be able to thrive on its own not just through the benevolence of consumers. We want culture to be dynamic, participatory, and just.  To do this we need to recreate the circumstances for small scale primary producers to be able to make a living from their connection to the land.

The demise of these ways of working is not natural, there are specific policies, laws, and enforcement priorities that are ending these ways of life.   No one but huge conglomerates turning food into industrial commodities are able to survive.  Food prices are artificially low, with subsidies and the true cost of production being pushed off onto future generations through the destruction of our environment and onto our healthcare system.

Saving the uniqueness and potential of regional culture is a political issue.  It will take organizing and advocacy to save these ways of life as a part of our cultural heritage and future.     For gulf shrimping to be a viable fishery we need to change and/or enforce international trade policies and our own laws.   This will include higher tariffs for subsidised shrimp farm imports, the banning of cancer causing chemicals in shrimp imports, and full accounting of the environmental degradation of these farms.  Then domestic wild caught shrimp can compete on an even playing field.

So in conclusion we ask for the focus of those who value the variety of regional cultures to focus their efforts towards changing the policies that are destroying the ways of life of primary producers.  Doing this will help to maintain the conditions to continue creating distinctive regional cultures and the potential for a  deeper relationship with the land.”

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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