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Walt Kittelberger

INTERVIEWEE: Walt Kittelberger (WK)
DATE: February 24, 2000
LOCATION: Port Mansfield, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2081

Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers indicate time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview topic.

0:00:57 – 2081
DT: My name is David Todd and it’s February 24, the year 2000. We’re in Port Mansfield, Texas, and I’m representing the Conservation History Association of Texas, and we have the good fortune to be talking to Walt Kittelberger, who is a sports fishing guide and an advocate for the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation here in this part of Texas. I just wanted to thank Mr. Kittelberger for sitting with us and talking about some of this. Thank you.
0:01:43 – 2081
WK: You’re welcome, David.
DT: I wanted to start with a question about your childhood and if there were any experiences that might have influenced your interest in the outdoors and in conservation?
0:1:56 – 2081
WK: Oh, very much so, you know, growing up in the California area most of my weekends were spent with my father and we fished the Pacific Coast, you know, from San Diego all the way up to Ventura. Spent most of our time around the Malibu area and, you know, I treasure those memories, and not too many years ago when I went back to visit, I looked at what the beaches of California had become because of, you know, development on that coast and then I compared it to what we had here in South Texas, and South Texas is like California was in the 50’s and I, for one, would like to see a—a little less development here on the Texas coast. At least, the kind of uncontrolled growth they had in California. But, you know—you know, I spent so much time in the out of doors there that when I moved to Texas, I soon appreciated how much freedom the average guy had in Texas that was really denied you in California. I mean too many fences, too many buildings in California. Texas, as long as you’ve got, you know, a dollar’s worth of gas you can hunt and fish to your heart’s content.
DT: I understood that after you moved to Texas you had a stint as a computer salesman, and I’m curious how you made the move from being a white collar worker in the city to being a fishing guide down in South Texas.
0:03:22 – 2081
WK: Well, one of my friends said when I finally did make the move from Houston down here, he said “Finally, an honest job.” Because all the years that I was a salesman in Houston, you know, I was just always finding a way to, you know, break loose early on the weekends and so my heart was always on the coast, even if my body was, you know selling computers in Houston.
DT: And what were some of your first experiences of hunting and fishing in Texas?
0:03:47 – 2081
WK: Well, my first experience was, you know, I moved to Texas after getting out of the Army and visited with a friend that I’d met in the Army, who was Acunas just moving from Metarre(?) to Houston and he decided to take me to his wife’s daddy’s beach house on Bolivar Peninsula. And so, the lifestyle on Bolivar Peninsula just instantly grabbed me by the throat and I said, “Wow, you know, this is something I want to do, you know, when I can afford to do it.” And, you know, 15 years later, you know, the opportunity seemed to present itself, you know. I’d pretty well maxed out all the fun I could have in—in Houston and my—my family was still young enough they could take a move, so we made the move, you know, learned fishing from Acunas, Texas style, and I’ve evolved into a slightly different kind of fisherman but, he still comes down once a year with his wife and have a good time. Port Mansfield is a good place to be if you like to fish.
DT: Can you tell us about the Laguna Madre and what makes it unique? This big body of water around Port Mansfield.
0:04:50 – 2081
WK: Well, Laguna Madre is one of only three hypersaline lagoons in the world and it’s—that sounds a little sterile to put it that way. Perhaps a better way to put it is that it’s the most productive estuarine environment on the planet Earth. It does this somewhat by sacrificing bio-diversity, but the creatures that can survive in this environment—and they have for over 5,000 years—are able to do so in a very, very productive kind of way, even though we only account for about half—excuse me—even though, we’re only about 20 percent of the total bay water in Texas, we still account for over half of the fin—commercial fin fish caught here every year. There’s a reason for that, it’s a really great place to be if you’re a fish. And it follows that that would make it a very great place to be if you’re a fisherman.
DT: I understand that it’s also been one of the most protected and least developed bays along the Texas coast. Do you have an idea why it’s remained protected over the years?
0:05:51 – 2081
WK: Partly by accident and partly because of the wisdom of people like Robert Kleberg. I mean, Mr. Kleberg, you know, at the turn of the century, was redefining what stewardship was when it comes to coastal properties. Up to that point most ranchers kind of thought that the—the end of the fence was kind of the end of their responsibility, where Robert Kleberg understood that the—the whole environment impacted and interacted between them and that, in fact, the coastal area of the ranches was in many ways more valuable than the interior part of the ranches. So you have that kind of protecting our Western side. Through the visionary works of Senator Ralph Yarborough back in the ‘60’s you have the creation of the Padre Island National Seashore back in the mid-60’s, and it protected the Eastern side. You know, where the push is coming to shove is a little bit further South of Port Mansfield. There’s some contested areas there that may be developed, but I think more and more people are starting to realize how valuable this part of the Texas coast is left alone, rather than exploited like other bays were exploited in America. If you contrast the last 50 years, you compare the Chesapeake Bay area to the Laguna Madre area, you’ll see how to do it right and how to do it wrong. One of the great advantages that we have as an organization down here is we’re trying to protect something, we’re not trying to re-invent something. You can—you can protect something for nickels and dimes, when it comes to rebuilding a bay it costs you billions upon billions.
DT: I understood that you spent a good deal of your time fishing the bay and that a lot of your clients, of course, make that affordable for you, and I was curious if you could tell me about how you fish the Laguna, where you go, what you fish for, what kind of tackle you use, your sort of way of life out there?
0:07:54 – 2081
WK: Well, Laguna Madre, one of the unique features of it is the fact that its less than one meter in depth throughout. There’s a slightly deeper area that runs down the middle of it, but by and large it’s a very, very shallow bay, which is just very conducive to wade-fishing. So, myself and most of my contemporaries down here choose to wade-fish the shallow, clear water. We use either conventional tackle, spinning or bait casting, or more and more, fly fishermen are starting to appreciate the crystal-clear, shallow waters of the Laguna Madre. I mean Texas has a little bit of the—of the Bahamas right here in its own backyard. I mean, the—the flats around Port Mansfield are second to none, I mean it’ll—it’s a—it’s world class fishing environment and people are just now, really in the last five or ten years starting to discover that and through that discovery, hopefully, they’ll develop an appreciation of what it is and not try to make it something it isn’t.
DT: What do you usually fish for when you’re on the Laguna?
0:08:58 – 2081
WK: You know, the two most popular species are—are Spotted Sea Trout and Red Fish. Both of these are game fish that are, you know, good-looking, good to eat, they offer you a good fight and they’re not always easy to catch, so there’s always that challenge. Fishing in Laguna Madre, a lot of people have compared it to a synthesis between hunting and fishing. Where most bays, because of the lack of water clarity, you kind of chunk a bait out and you wait until your rod starts to move. Where the kind of fishing we do in the Laguna Madre, you—you take your rod and you stalk the flats looking for fish and then you make casts directly to the fish. So, it’s a different kind of game and it’s a game that more and more folks are liking to play.
DT: Speaking of stalking fish, can you give us an idea of what a typical fishing trip would be? When you get up, how do you get out on the flats, how long you stay and so on?
0:09:56 – 2081
WK: Well, it various, obviously, by season, but typically in the warmer months, which is about nine out of 12 in Port Mansfield, our fishing day starts about a half hour before daylight and ends when the last man is no longer standing. I mean, typically that’s me, but occasionally it’s one of my customers. You know, on average, eight to ten hours out on the water. We cover a pretty good area often, too, because we strictly fish with artificial baits, so it’s not a sedentary sport at all, you know we might cover a 40 mile area, you know, on a—on a long day—more average day would be covering maybe a ten to 15 mile area. We move as the fish move. It’s a very habitat rich kind of environment, unlike bays such as Galveston Bay, where you have, like, a reef here, a reef there, you know, and you kind of move from spot to spot when the fish do. The Laguna Madre is like sea grass meadows from one end to the other so the fish are just kind of roaming the areas. So, you can find a little solitude with your fishing down here that you can no longer really expect in most of the other bays in the—in the country, not just Texas, but in the country. You can go out and get your own little, you know, 40 acres of heaven out here pretty easily.
DT: Can you tell us a little bit about the sort of people that you fish with? The clients who come down and why they come, what they expect, what sort of experience they have?
0:11:23 – 2081
WK: Well, interestingly enough, better than half of my customers that come down here, either flying or driving, live within 30 minutes of Galveston Bay, and they drive past all the other Bays in Texas, basically, to get here. I mean, that alone ought to tell you something. I mean, it tells me that we still—we have the most quality experience available to anglers in the state, if not the nation. My customers come from a wide mix, you know, I get groups of guys from chemical plants up in Baytown that pool their resources and come down here and I also have, you know, the rich and the famous, whether they’re politicians, sports stars or, you name it. A worldwide variety of people, you know, avail themselves of this precious resource.
DT: And are they here for trophies, or food, or for the experience of being outdoors?
0:12:18 – 2081
WK: Most, you know—I’ve looked at that, but I haven’t really been able to categorize the guys that way. I mean, different guys throughout different periods of their life, you know, will change, you know, what they define as a good trip, you know. When they’re younger, they’re just out to catch, you know, trophy fish, like when they hunt deer just the biggest racks and as they—as they mature, you know, their wants and needs will change and I’ve had the great good fortune, you know, being a fishing guide here for about 14 years now, of watching a lot of these fellows, you know, evolve, you know, from meat hunters, you know, trophy hunters to people who just like to be out on—on a beautiful bay and have a productive day on the water. The—their criterias change. And one of the great benefits of Port Mansfield from a practical standpoint, is that we’re virtually bulletproof weather wise. We fish under conditions down here that you wouldn’t even think safe to leave the dock in an upper Texas coastal bay. It’s very, very common here in the spring time for us to fish with winds in the 30 to 40 mile an hour range, where you’d be taking your life in your hands to try fishing Galveston Bay, or Baffin Bay or Corpus Christi Bay under those conditions. So the fellows know that, you know, if they go to the trouble of getting here that they’re not only going to be able to see the bay, they’re going to be able to go out, experience it, and have a productive time on the bay. That’s why I have a—a guide business here and not a guide business some place else.
DT: Have you felt that any of these fishermen go on to become conservationists or advocates for protecting the bay?
0:14:01 – 2081
WK: Yeah, I mean, most of them have—this is like—fishing the Laguna Madre, I’ve always thought was like a Ph.D. course in fishing and most of my—most of my customers, because of the criteria that I set, don’t really come down here to learn how to fish. They’ve already learned how to fish someplace else and so they’ve spent enough time on the water and they’ve seen, you know, what—what conservation can and cannot do and so most of them are pretty attuned to that. Yeah, there’s a few that’s not but, you know, there’s always a few that slip through the cracks, but we enjoy fishing with those guys too. We try to bring them up to speed a little bit, you know, we don’t get overly preachy, but we try to, you know, explain to them the facts of life as we see them down here.
DT: Can you tell about some of the other guides that direct people around the bay and what sort of people they are?
0:14:54 – 2081
WK: Well, each—you know, each port along the Texas coast attracts a different type of fishing guide, in my opinion. The fishing guides in Port Mansfield tend to be people who aren’t so much businessmen as they are fishermen. I mean, they’re not guys who, you know, took early retirement, you know, from some other job and decided for the next 30 years I’m going to be a fishing guide. These are people that eat, drink and sleep fishing. Many of them’s roots were in commercial fishing and when the Red Fish and Trout were taken off the commercial list and declared a—a recreational species, they shifted gears from being a commercial fisherman to being fishing guides. So, the one thing you can say about all the Port Mansfield fishing guides is that they have a real intimate knowledge on how to catch fish in the Laguna Madre. And they also understand that it’s very, very important that the Laguna Madre stay a viable fishing place.
DT: You mention that some of the fishing guides were once commercial fishermen. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between recreational fishermen and commercial fishermen and where there’s tension and where there’s common ground?
0:16:08 – 2081
WK: Well, I mean, we’ve come a long ways. There was a great deal of tension, obviously, when people who had—whose families were third and fourth generation fishermen, were all of a sudden, over night, told that you can’t go to work in the morning, essentially. And I thought it was pretty narrow minded of many folks up in Austin and up in Houston, who—who created and passed the—the enabling legislation that—that—that did that to not understand, you know, the human impacts it would have. And they stepped on the commercial fisherman in Port Mansfield very, very hard, so feelings were very, very bitter for quite a few years. You know, some people still hold a hostile attitude towards the recreational fisherman, but most guys I think, you know, understand that it was inevitable, that the—that the resource was more valuable than could only be coveted by a small number, that it had to be shared with a greater audience. And so, they’ve all adapted, the ones that I know, and the ones who weren’t able to adapt fishing wise, have gone into other lines of work or moved out I guess. But the fellows who remain, pretty stable group of fellows who, despite severe killer freezes like we’ve had in ’83 and ’89, and despite severe the brown tide situation we had down here back in the early ‘90’s, you know, they’ve weathered a lot of storms. You know, I’ve—I’ve been—personally, I’ve been quite amazed by the resiliency of the fishermen in Port Mansfield. I’m proud to be a member of the group myself.
DT: I guess one of the reasons that they had to cut back on the commercial fishing was that there were declines in some of the fish populations. Could you talk about the crash in Tarpon and Red Fish over the past years?
0:18:05 – 2081
WK: Well, you know, it’s a paradox. Depending upon who you talk to, you get a different spin on this. And I’m not sure—I’m not so sure that it’s not more s—in many area’s it’s not more spin than science. Interesting story, I was talking to a fellow who’s been a supporter of the Foundation for the last ten or 12 years, consider him a friend and he worked very hard with the GCCA [Gulf Coast Conservation Association], and he used to talk about his trips down in Port Mansfield back in the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s and said, “Walt, you couldn’t go from one part of this bay to another without going through just a maze of trout lines and these nets and it was very—it was just a terrible experience.” I said, “Well, how was fishing back then?” “Oh, well, we used to just load the boxes with them, by golly, you know, we caught Trout this big, you know, and we had a great time.” I said, “Ok, that’s interesting. And so, you’re down here this weekend, and how’d you do this weekend.” “Well, it wasn’t—you know, it wasn’t too good this weekend, you know, it’s not like it used to be.” So there’s your paradox, right? You get a lot of guys who say that, you know, that—that the old days, you know, were not a model to go by, but, when you actually look at what they’re accomplishing now, they’re catching less fish now. It’s just that less fi—they’re being divided among a greater number of people. So if your argument is is it good for the fish? I suspect it’s not good for the fish. If your argument is is it good for recreational fishermen? Then, of course, it’s good for recreational fishermen. So, you know, I’ve al—it’s like that argument about what’s a sanctuary for fish? During killer freezes fish will go into the inner coastal waterway, for instance, looking for deeper water to get thermal protection. And everybody says, “Wow, the inner coastal waterway is a—is fish sanctuary.” Well, you might define it a sanctuary unless you’re a fish! I mean, everybody knows they go in the deep water during these cold snaps and so fishermen by the hundreds descend upon these deep spots, and just catch the hell out of the fish. So, you may think it may be potentially a sanctuary, theoretically, but in reality, no, it’s a slaughterhouse for them. So, comparing commercial, you know, to recreational fishing impacts on the resource over the last 20 years, it’s more spin than science.
DT: Why do you think that the Red Fish and Tarpon have had such a hard time in certain periods?
0:20:37 – 2081
WK: Well, the Paul Prudhomme, I suppose, would be the—the poster boy for how to decimate a species, the Black and Red Fish craze of years gone by for all the finest eateries in New Orleans, was based upon purse-seining of brood stock of Red Fish out in the Gulf of Mexico, Shandler(?) Channel and other places like that. Now there, very clearly, was something that had to be stopped and stopped quickly. You see, Red Fish have a certain degree of—of safety built in to their existence in bays because they don’t spend their whole life in the bay, they only spend a few years in the bay. Once a Red Fish becomes sexually mature, it heads to the Gulf of Mexico, where it spends the rest of its life. You know, during times of the year it’ll approach the coast, it’ll lay eggs and the eggs will be washed into the bays, where the fish will then hatch in the estuarine environment and grow to adulthood. But see, killer freezes and gill netters in the bay, these are not serious long-term threats to Red Fish, in my opinion. You know, it’s the Gulf—it’s the brood stock off the Gulf of Mexico that needs to really be protected, you know, that’s—that’s the seed bull out there in the Gulf of Mexico when it comes to Red Fish. Trout, you know, it’s a different approach with Trout. You know, they’re just very prolific. I mean, you can have a killer freeze that you swear up and down that every Trout within 100 miles is just gone; no way it’s ever going to survive. A year later, you’re catching fish. Two years later it’s about half as normal, and three years later it’s damn near back to normal. So, you know, hatcheries, you know, they have some value, but the reality is if you keep a good healthy environment for the fish and down here that means good healthy sea grass beds and water that’s not being trashed by municipal and agricultural outflows, then you’re going to have a healthy fish stock for a long time, in my opinion.
DT: I noticed there’s a lot of agriculture. With so much farming so nearby have you had through these decades a runoff pesticide thing and has it come and gone to Silent Spring on how it’s been handled and dealt with here?
0:23:09 – 2081
WK: Well, you know, you’d have to ask Rachel Carson about a question like that, I suppose, not me.
DT: I mean the awareness of the problem. Like, 40 years ago farmers didn’t think nothing of it and was it a problem that no one knew about, pesticides in these bays here, or does the pesticides and the runoff not reach her from where we were driving in?
0:23:28 – 2081
WK: I guess the best way I can answer that question is to say that for so many years and up until the last ten years, the Rio Grande valley has been thought of as a third world country. In every way, shape and form. There just hasn’t been enough science done down here to really answer your question just yet. I mean, even though it was mandated a decade or so ago by the EPA [Environmental Protection Association], the TNRCC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission], they’re just now getting around to something called the TMDL [Total Maximum Daily Load] study, where they’re going into the main drain for the Rio Grande Valley, which is called the Arroyo Colorado. Some people mistakenly believe the Arroyo Colorado is a stream. Well, in days gone by it was a stream, reality is that now the headwaters of the Arroyo Colorado is the—is the outflow from the city of Mission, Texas. I mean, the water that goes into the Arroyo Colorado is all water that the cities of the Rio Grande Valley dump into it. So, fortunately, the head pressure at the Laguna Madre is such that there’s a saltwater wedge that kind of holds that stuff at bay and only during times of great floods and runoffs, does a lot of that kind of pollutant get into the Laguna Madre. You know, studies that I’ve read, one that I got just this morning, indicate that that particular thing doesn’t appear to be a serious problem, but the research is kind of in its infancy down here, they haven’t done a lot. They do know that the brown tide problem that occurred here, you know, it reached the Laguna M—the upper part of the lower Laguna Madre in around November of 1990. And its genesis was somewhere North up in the Baffin Bay, Alazan Bay, Laguna Salada complex. Many people attribute it to brine pumping and to agricultural runoff. But, it was that in conjunction with the killer freeze of 1989 that killed so much in the way of organic material, that it caused just a huge nutrient loading in the Bay. But what we—a very valuable lesson was learned with that, is for most bays in the world, when you get something like a algae bloom, because they are bays and not lagoons, they’ll flush themselves out. Laguna Madre, being by definition a lagoon, once you have a problem in this bay—lagoon, it tends to be around a long time. It doesn’t have a natural way of flushing itself out. Now before you say, “Well, we need to start making it easier to flush,” well, that would be true if it was at one point in its a life a bay, but the reality is it is a lagoon, it’s always been a lagoon and it should always probably remain a lagoon. If you’re only an advocate for a couple of species of fish, then you probably have a valid argument that you ought to do something to improve the flushing of it. But if you’re an advocate for all the living organisms in
0:26:28 – 2081
the Laguna Madre, then you have to say, “Let’s step back and take a look at how that would effect these other organisms.” First thing you notice is that we’re hypersaline, as we mentioned earlier, it means that we’re on average, saltier than seawater. Sounds like bad thing until you realize that we’re—that our hypersaline condition is very fortuitous for certain things and one of them is shoal grass, which is the—the bedrock of the Laguna Madre. So goes the shoal grass, so goes the life and the history of the—the Laguna Madre. The freshening of the lower Laguna Madre in particular over the years by agricultural drains, by dredging of the inner coastal waterway has tended to freshen up the Laguna Madre. Consequently, shoal grass has been displaced by other somewhat less desirable species of grass, for instance, manatee grass. A very gifted scientist with USGS by the name of Christopher Onuf, has documented well over the years on how this manatee grass has been invading the Laguna Madre. One of our marquee species of an avian variety, the Red Headed Duck, depends upon shoal grass for its existence. That’s why the Laguna Madre hosts 80 percent of the population of Red Headed Ducks.
DT: How do they depend on it?
0:27:52 – 2081
WK: It’s their—it’s their primary source of food. Red Headed Duck eats the rhizome, the carbohydrate rich rhizome, which is the horizontal root of these particular sea grasses. Unlike most ducks, Red Headed Ducks, when they come to the Laguna Madre to winter, their—they eat basically just one thing and, in fact, they have a highly developed salt gland, so they actually drink and are able to, you know, desalinate the salty water, so they’re very, very well adapted. So, there again you have a situation where if you’re a strictly a Trout or Red Fish advocate, you would want the Laguna to look one way, but if you’re a Red Headed Duck advocate, you know, you’d want it to look another way. If you’re an oyster advocate, you’d want it to be real fresh. So what you have to do, and what we try to do at the lower Laguna Madre Foundation, is try to assess equal value to all organisms. We’re actively working right now with a group of people down South of here to help protect the overharvesting of live shells. I mean, most people associate shells with just things you pick up on the beach, like this conch I have behind me here. Well, I mean, there’s a life history behind the shell you pick up on the beach and right now, thousands of people are overharvesting those shells. So, you know, there’s a myriad of—of things that depend on a healthy Laguna Madre and they tend to do better if things remain about like they are from the bay’s point of view. This doesn’t mean you can’t have development, what it does mean, though, is that the development has to take a back seat to the bay, not the other way around.
DT: While we were talking about pesticides, where I guess this conversation started, you mentioned TMDLs and I wondered if you could talk about what they call total maximum daily loads, and why I think you thought that’s sort of an odd approach for budgeting pollution for a stream?
0:29:56 – 2081
WK: Yeah, I mean, on it’s—on it’s face, it sounds like an environmentally friendly way to approach a situation, but I think the reality is, by definition the total maximum daily loading tries to determine and quantify just how much a particular body can take before it goes into a crisis situation. So, to my way of thinking, you come to a body of water that has a—that’s actually fairly clean, and you start setting limits, then that is an incentive to industry to start discharging into that water up to a certain level. And so I think it’s a—I think it’s a very wrong headed idea if your idea is to protect that body of water from pollution. If, on the other hand, your motivation is to find another home for burgeoning industries to discharge into a body of water, then it makes perfectly good sense for me. I think the public and some of the grassroots folks even, that are advocates of that TMDL, are being misled by the government, which is, like, no really big surprise, I mean, the TNRCC has just a terrible record in the State of Texas when it comes to clean air and clean water, particularly over the last five or so years. I mean, it’s—it’s really kind of bad and getting worse. They need to take a little more time studying stewardship and a little less time looking at, you know, chemical charts perhaps.
DT: I also wanted to go back and revisit what you’re talking about, grasses and the shoal grasses and manatee grasses. I understand that some people are worried that some of these tunnel-hulled boats are damaging some of these grass beds and I was wondering if you think there was any truth to that?
0:31:50 – 2081
WK: Oh sure, there’s absolutely truth to that. Particularly up in—it’s not really so much a problem down in the lower—in the Laguna Madre as it is up in the Rockport area. There’s an area up there called Estes Flats where prop scarring has just really done a lot of damage apparently, you know, to the sea grasses up there. Fortunately, down here in the lower Laguna Madre, you know, we’ve been using, you know, shallow drag boats for so many years because of the extreme shallow nature of the bay, but most of the people are kind of hip on the fact that if you’re digging up the bottom, you’re also screwing up your prop, and so they develop ways down here to be a lot more, you know, friendly to the sea grasses. Cur—curious—curiously enough, though, the tunnel boats seem to be where the focus of attention is, where tunnel boats operate in such shallow water, that they don’t really tend to do much in the way of prop scarring in the actual sea grass beds. An average scooter boat down here can get up very easily in ten to 12 inches of water. It can actually get up in less than that if it’s in a skilled pair of hands. The boats that tend to make the deep, ugly scars out here are the conventional hulled boats that want to operate in the same areas that the tunnel boats operate. It’s like tunnel envy. I mean, like, they see the guys out there in the flats with their little flats boats, hooting around, catching all these fish, and they’re stuck in a 20-foot Mako and so in order to get out there, what these guys will do, they’ll just apply maximum power to these boats that shouldn’t be up in the shallow water to begin with, and they’ll just dig a trough until they get out to where they can run no more and their engines are kicked up out of the water by the—by running into the bottom, then they’ll tilt their engines all the way up, they’ll fish for awhile, and then when it’s time to go, they’ll start plowing a channel on their way to get out. It’s just—it’s frustrating as hell for me to watch all the tunnel hulled boys getting the credit for a lot of damage that’s being done by the fellows in the non-tunnel boats. But, you know, the—the state of Texas regulators have a rich history of perceptions versus realities, and this is another case where they think they’re getting ahead of the curve and all they’re really doing is they’re just regulating the people that look like they’re causing the problem. They haven’t done any kind of serious research yet to decide who really the culprits are out there. You know, I wish they would. You know, sea grasses need to be protected from all kinds of problems. Prop scarring is certainly a problem that needs to be
0:34:28 – 2081
addressed. But, before they start draining the swamp, they need to worry about the real alligator and the real alligator is the guy that created that ditch that’s a couple of hundred foot wide, 12 foot deep and 111 miles long out in the Laguna Madre, and that’s the Corps of Engineers. To start banging on recreational fishermen about destroying sea grass beds, when you have the Corps of Engineers, who systematically for the last 50 years destroyed more sea grass beds than all the—all the boats and all the fishermen in all—in all the kingdom could ever do in 100 lifetimes, I mean, it just pales by comparison and so it—it always irks me when regulators, who are afraid to take on—when—when State of Texas agency people who are afraid to take on the Federal Government because they’re afraid they’re going to lose this program money or that program money, decide to regulate those who they can easily regulate and, through Parks and Wildlife and other agencies, they’ll regulate the fishermen, it’s obvious. Rather than really taking on the—the big guy. I mean, our Foundation, you know, has found some support at the State, but by and large it’s been lip service. I mean, the Federal Government is the 400 pound gorilla, they’re the ones that control the purse strings of all these programs, I mean, they’re very proud of these programs like the National Estuary Program up in Corpus Christi Bay, well, without the federal money, that thing dies on the vine. It’s not self-supporting, it’s not self-sufficient. I mean, at some point in time, the State of Texas is going to have to acknowledge the fact that they have a half a billion dollar a year resource out here, that they’re selling out for two and half million dollars worth of federal money. I mean, that’s how much it costs to dredge the Laguna Madre on average every year, about two and a half million bucks. So I don’t know how many bright businessmen there are with MBAs up in Austin right now, but if they want to put 2.5 million over 500 million and tell me what that ratio is, then that’s how stupid their decision making has been as regards to the Laguna Madre and the dredging practices of the Corps of Engineers. To really point this out to you in—in really clear terms, our Foundation’s first lawsuit we got involved with back in 1994, was to stop open bay dumping of spoil by the Corps of Engineers. Our witnesses were all Corps of Engineer people. I mean, we just put them up as hostile witnesses. I mean, it’s all their own—they generated all the information over the years that tells you exactly the kind of destruction they’ve caused.
DT: What kind of damage?
0:37:10 – 2081
WK: Oh gosh, you know, let me count the ways. I mean, the most obvious way is by taking dirt that was over here and putting it where it’s not supposed to be and smothering sea grasses. I mean, this is pretty easy for the average homeowner to understand by going out in his front yard and asking a dump truck to come up and dump a big load of dirt in his yard and then come back in six months, scrape the dirt away and see how much grass has been growing under there. You cut sunlight away from grass and, basically, you kill the grass. So that’s the—that’s the first way they do it. The second way they do it is by turbidity. It increases the level of turbidity in certain parts of this bay. Most of the bay that’s upwind of where the Corps of Engineers dredges, is very healthy, productive and clear. The stuff that’s downwind, there’s vast acres of sea grasses that have been lost. It’s a very windy area out here, perhaps one of the windiest areas in the country. Corpus Christ is the—the windiest metropolitan area in the United States. Every day around 11:00, the winds come up and when they come up, they re-suspend all that very fine sediment that the Corps of Engineers has dredged from the canal. And just to perpetuate this bad idea, the
0:38:27 – 2081
Corps of Engineers typically places material in spoil cells that are either upwind or upcurrent of where they’ve just dredged it. So that in a relatively short period of time all your tax dollars that were spent to dredge this material in the first place are in—in fact, about 80 percent wasted because the material flows right back into the canal where it came from. Now, if you’re a dredger or you’re an—an engineer for the Corps, this is great, you know, it’s job security. But if you’re a fisherman or if you’re a birder, of if you’re just somebody that likes to likes to look at a clean, healthy bay, then you ought to be outraged by it. Unfortunately, most people buy into the Corps’ spiel that they’ve been putting out for so many years, that they have a congressional mandate to keep the inner coastal waterway open, and they can’t do anything that would threaten that. Well, what they seem to forget a law signed, you know, back in the late ‘60s mandated that not only will they keep the canal open, but they’ll do so in a very environmentally sensitive way. The—the law, basically, gives equal weight to the environment as well as industry. It doesn’t stack the deck one-way or the other. Only the Corps of Engineers stacks that deck because each time they go into congress and ask for money, they ask for money to keep the ditch open and they just soft-pedal anything to do with the environmental impacts of their work.
DT: Is there much barge traffic to justify having the canal?
0:39:54 – 2081
WK: Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But the reality is that the lower Laguna Madre has the distinction of being the least used, most often dredged reach of the entire inland waterway system in the United States of America, according to books put out by the Texas Transportation Institute and others. To me, this ought to point out the—the absurdity of it. When you add to that the fact that more than half of what comes down the inner coastal waterway from Corpus Christi could be brought down more efficiently and more safely by existing pipelines that are already in the ground, I mean, that just points out the fact that there’s something rotten in the State of Denmark. I mean, there’s a little more to this than meets the eye. The barge companies are very well connected people and it’s a cash cow to some very important families in America, and they tend to benefit when the fuel is brought to valley by barge. They don’t benefit as much when it’s brought to the valley by pipeline. So, we’re basically sacrificing a good portion of Laguna Madre just to fill the coffers of a very small number of people.
DT: Do you see much risk from spills from these barges through carrying fuel?
0:41:08 – 2081
WK: Well, I’ll tell you, just like we discussed earlier. You know, an algae bloom could hang around for years in this bay, there’s no effective way to flush it out. I’ve worked with the spill response teams, the United States Coast Guard and the General Land office for the last few years, and everybody to—to a man acknowledges the fact that we’ve just been, like, really lucky. I mean, barges—when barges pass in the Laguna Madre, they use a technique that the barge operators call Texas chicken. When they go through—when they go through very, very narrow passages, you know, they rub against each other as they go through. Now, this does two things; one, it makes you, like, really worried about what happens if they blow it; number two, it gives you kind of a grudging admiration for the ability of these barge operators. These guys are very talented men, it’s a very—it’s a testament to their—to their talents that there hasn’t been some sort of a huge spill. Now, we haven’t been without spills down here. We’ve had some minor spills and, fortunately, they’ve been—they’ve been minor to this point. But, with all this, you know, the increased amount of traffic and a booming economy in the Rio Grande Valley, I think it becomes one of those areas that if you don’t get ahead of the curve now and—and set some protection, that you’re going to pay for it later in spades. The official plan, quite frankly, down here in the case of a major spill is the plan that should have been enacted, but wasn’t up in Prince William Sound with the Exxon Valdez disaster and that is torch it, and torch it quick. I mean, that’s good if it’s, like, in certain parts of the bay, but if the spill’s right out in front of my house, I’m not too—I’m not too sure I’ll be real crazy about watching a guy with a stick of magnesium torch everything in front of my house, but that is the plan as I understand it right now. You know, the—the—the shallowness of the bay makes it very difficult for the type of equipment that normally collects these spills to operate in. I mean, you know, much of this bay—the average depth is three feet, but a large percentage of that, of the bay is a foot, foot and half deep and the equipment just can’t get there. So, the only effective way to deal with a large spill down here quickly is setting it afire, and that assumes that it’s something that’s flammable, which may not be the case, you know, in all cases.
DT: I’ve heard some people say that their concern about the barge traffic is not just the spills or the dredging, but also the erosion from the barges passing the shores. Do you see that as being a problem?
0:43:52 – 2081
WK: Sure. It’s not as great a problem in the lower Laguna as it is up—further up the coast, like around the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, and such like that. It hasn’t been a big issue down here, the erosion, unless you want to define erosion as, you know, the habit that some barge operators have of parking their barges by ramming them into the side of the canal so they can run in and have a hamburger, fries and a Coke at a local restaurant. Then they go back out and pull their barges off and rehook them up—they drive in with their tugs and then, you know. Most of that has stopped, you know. That’s one of the—one of the positive effects that I think that our Foundation has had that you really don’t read about over the past eight or ten years, is so many of our members live on the shores of the Laguna Madre and fish and just, in other ways, recreate out there. And we now, because we’re an organization that does have, you know, the ability to bring litigation and the resulting costly mitigation to these companies when they do these kind of boneheads, that they’re a lot more careful now than they used to be as far as just the way they—they conduct their business. But, I wouldn’t categorize this as a huge issue, it’s just something, though, that its cumulative effects over a period of time, you know, can have a very detrimental effect.
DT: What was the concern about the wildlife refuge and the erosion?
0:45:24 – 2081
WK: Oh, just, you know, the wave action generated by—by the barge traffic, you know, just cuts away, you know, at the sides of the—of the—the channel. And in the case in certain areas, the channel abuts to marshlands and if you have some of these marshlands encroached by erosion, then apparently you get too much incursion of saltwater into areas that ought to be a little fresher. But, frankly, when it comes to that part of the coast, I don’t consider myself an authority, I just—I just know what I read in the newspaper when it comes to those kind of things.
DT: You mentioned a foundation a number of times, the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation. Can you tell about your role in that and how it got started?
0:46:08 – 2081
WK: Lower Laguna Madre Foundation got started as a result of controversy over the development of the Northern tip of South Padre Island by the American General—American General Insurance Corporation of Houston. At the time, there was a gentleman, who’s since passed, by the name of Bob Minor, who was oh, a fisherman, hunter, and very active in the business community in Houston, that really had a deep love for the Laguna Madre. And when he saw what was going to happen, he knew that just the ranting and ravings of a single fishing guide wasn’t going to accomplish much. So, Mr. Minor decided to put some form to our function and he suggested that we, you know, start a foundation. He contacted a fellow by the name of Dick Morrison, who in turn brought in people like Senator Ralph Yarborough and the Foundation was formed as a 501C3 as a result of the American General project.
DT: This is during the ‘80s? Is that right?
0:47:13 – 081
WK: Actually, yeah, late ‘80s, ’89 and ’90. Actually, if one person really gets credit for the creation of the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, it would probably have to be State Senator Eddie Lucio. Senator Lucio—I was attending a meeting—kind of a rah-rah session on the American General project, I was out in the audience at Texas State Technical College and Eddie Lucio was up at the podium, and he was boasting about how this project was going to be built because there was no organized opposition to it. Everybody was in favor of it. So, after listening to Lucio, who I knew was no real friend of the environment, I went back, discussed with Mr. Minor then the Foundation was formed shortly thereafter. So, thank you once again, Mr. Lucio.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about the American General proposal that was sort was the origin of this?
0:48:05 – 2081
WK: Oh sure. Yeah, American General acquired the property somewhere in the—back in the ‘60s, during the creation of the Padre Island National Seashore. As I understand it, they had enough money in their budget in the National Park system to create a park that was, like, this long, but they could only manage a park that was this long. So, this other little part of the Southernmost part of the property that was originally intended to be part of the—the Padre Island National Seashore, through lack of funding back in the ‘60s was set aside. And then, through some sort of prestidigitation by developers, insurance companies, and the State of Texas, it somehow fell into the hands of American General. There were lawsuits that, you know, ensued year after year. There was a development company called Padre Island Development Company, that they were claiming it, so it was very, very muddled at best. But after all the dust had settled and the smoke had cleared, American General came out with the property and they—it was very—I guess they would call it a non-performing asset. They had some real estate developments they’d, you know, been successful with in Houston, so they came up with the idea of—of moving this property. Not as a developer, they were—they always were careful to say, “We’re not going to develop the property, we’re going to position the property for development.” And at the time, you know, there was a lot of, at the time, actually Japanese money was kind of flowing around this country and a lot of projects were—were popping up and then, you know, going bust and we saw—we saw the American General property really as more of a good old fashioned Texas boondoggle than actually a serious attempt at any real world class resort, as they were calling it. Consequently, we decided that this hand should be taken out of developer—developer’s hand in perpetuity. So, to that end, the Foundation has worked with the Nature Conservancy, US Fish and Wildlife and plenty of private organizations, national, I mean non-governmental organizations, decide to secure this property. It’s of the interest that we’re making a good deal of headway in that, which is our original mandate, you know, basically, that’s what brought the—the Foundation into existence, was that project and we’ve learned here just in the last few months that it looks like it’s going to be part of the expansion of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and—and for that, we’re very thankful.
DT: So had the Japanese money gone through, then we’d have the Red Fish Sushi.
0:50:45 – 2081
WK: That’s right. That’s where the Japanese came through. That’s right.
DT: I understand that the Laguna has not only been protected because of the restrictions on development on Padre Island, but also because of the continuing agricultural nature of the Kennedy Ranch, the King Ranch, and I’m curious what the scuttlebutt is about the King Ranch’s future, since I understand they’ve gone into a corporate structure and individual family members now may be able to trade some of their interest in the ranch.
0:51:22 – 2081
WK: Yeah. I’ll say this that I, you know, I—I slept a lot better before that kind of came to the forefront, but it’s a practical reality of the times, you know, there’s many families that have a stake in the King Ranch. But, the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation relationship with the ranch is the same now as it was ten years ago and that is that we appreciate the importance of the shoreline in the same way that they do. And I feel very good that the—that the seeds that were planted by Robert Kleberg and who have been nurtured to the years by Tio Kleberg and others will continue to bear fruit in the fruit of stewardship. They understand the value of the property and they also understand the position that the ranch holds in the South Texas history. And as long as you have, you know, people of the quality that they have on their board right now, I don’t think it’ll become a big issue. It may in some point in the future, but I don’t think that’ll be the near future.
DT: Speaking of the future, what do you think are going to be the big challenges for the South Texas environment, particularly Laguna Madre, in years to come?
0:52:36 – 2081
WK: Well, the—the hot button issue right now, quite frankly, are these aquaculture facilities.
DT: What do you mean by that? What are aquaculture facilities?
0:52:46 – 2081
WK: OK, the—the shrimp farms are the ones that are the—the ones more in the news today down here. They’re the coastal equivalent of the hog farms that have caused so much problems up in the panhandle of Texas and—or in the East coast and other parts of the country. The reality is that the amount of waste generated from these facilities is so huge in proportion to the benefit that is derived from them, that they really don’t make any sense, particularly when you understand that they don’t need to be located on the coast. You know, the only logical reason to locate these things on the coast appears to be the ease of discharging. They were first contacted—the coastal people were first contacted because, well, you want to raise shrimp, I guess you go to where shrimp are going to be naturally. But, the technology has improved over the years to the point where you could raise shrimp more effectively and more profitably some say out in Fort Stockton than you can in Port Mansfield. The reality of these shrimp farms that most people don’t appreciate is the volume of water that they discharge. A commercial shrimp farm like the ones we have down here in the Arroyo Colorado, have discharge permits that are the same as the City of Austin. So, when you think about a shrimp farm, people kind of tend to think of this cute little shrimp farm maybe, like, there’s a few Koi over there and some ducks paddling around. These are great big, corporate, commercial feed—I mean, big commercial facilities. They can—they can paint as rosy a picture they like and claim to be environmentally sensitive, but the reality is that it’s an industry that worldwide has in the past, and continues to
0:54:24 – 2081
have, very serious problems. They’re the coastal equivalent of strip mining, pure and simple. They go in, they—they raise crops, they—they increase the toxicity of the ground that they’ve been using, and then they tend to move on worldwide. It’s happening here in Texas. There’s a number of shrimp ponds up—up the coast from us that have finally just walked away from their operations and are moving to other par—other parts of the globe. Where they end up, we don’t know. But, what we do know is that there’s some very—very serious problems associated with locating shrimp farms along the coast. The most serious one, the one with the most science backing up the serious nature of the problem, are the viral outbreaks that these facilities inevitably have. These facilities are run by agronomists, not by marine biologists. Their responsibility ends at the end of their discharge pipe. Some say otherwise, but the reality is that they don’t have the educational background to go beyond the discharge pipe. I mean, the definition of an agronomist is somebody who maximizes the yield of Mother Earth, and that’s what they’re doing. Whether it be sorghum, cotton or, in this case, shrimp, their mandate is the same. They—they start out with a certain amount of acreage and they see how much they can get out of that acreage…
0:55:57 – 2081
DT: We were talking about what the future might hold when you were discussing shrimp farms. Are there any other risks that you see coming down the pike? Or opportunities for that matter?
0:56:09 – 2081
WK: Well, there’s, you know, there’s lots of both. I mean, in the opportunity department, you know, as I mentioned earlier, you know, because this economy is booming, you know, there’s—this is a time in history when we don’t have to do something on the cheap all the time when it comes to the environment. So I’m very excited about some of the opportunities, I’d like to see, you know, the Interior Department, you know, devote a few more dollars to setting aside unique national treasures. I think the Laguna Madre would qualify as such. But, even beyond that, just the w—just the technologies that are becoming available to deal with things that used to be insoluble problems, you know, these are not insurmountable now like they used to be, you know, there’s good—there’s good ways to treat, you know, municipal waste now that weren’t available years ago. There’s good ways to conduct shrimp farming. Shrimp farming, like we were just talking about, can be done as a closed system. There’s really no need to discharge from a shrimp farm. I mean, it’s a little more costly to recirculate, but when you consider the potential downside, that may be the price that industry has to pay if they want to stay along the coast. You know, if they want to go inland, they can discharge out there and somebody inland will have to find out, hopefully ahead of time, what potential downside there is there. But, on the coast, if they’re going to keep coming down to our latitude, which is one of their incentives, you know, it’s kind of like citrus, you can’t go too far North and raise a citrus crop, you can’t go too far North and raise a shrimp crop. You need, you know, you need it to stay fairly warm over a lengthy enough period of time to let the little guys grow to maturity. So, if they’re going to co-exist in this environment, they’ve got to get really dedicated really quick, or else they’re going to be blowing out of here.
DT: Considering some of these risks and opportunities, do you have any advice for the next generation on what they might look at and think about, work on?
0:58:09 – 2081
WE: Oh, well just getting ahe—you know the most important thing is getting ahead of the curve on these things, you know. What we should learn from the past is that if you let these things linger on that the—they become so costly that it becomes very difficult to find the money, much less the political will to really address these problems. Again, speaking specifically in the context of South Texas, South Texas is at a point right now where in the next 20 years our population is going to more than double, and with a population that’s going to more than double, the problems associated with growth are going to more than double also. So, if we don’t get some of these things in place now, they’ll be out of control. So, the folks that are coming down the line, we can either hand them off the problem of continued management or we can just hand them a big bucketful of snakes and tell the to deal with it. So, you know, the young people out there right now that are, you know, kind of coming up through the ranks I think they’re—are being educated to understand the importance of the environment much better, you know, than the—the people of my generation certainly were. I mean, it—it took—for me it took, you know rea—the reading of Aldo Leopold and experiencing the downsides of things happening in my own backyard to really awaken my consciousness, you know to the threats.
DT: What was the lesson of Leopold to you?
0:59:33 – 2081
WK: Oh, the principal lesson of Leo—Leopold to me was the fact that we—we have to look upon ourselves as—as part of the land and not the land being subservient to us. It’s the essence of stewardship; the fact that as, you know, as you treat the land so shall you be treated by the land. And he said this back when it was not at all fashionable, you know, he was a man who died, you know before or about the time that I was born. You know, even though he has children now that are carrying on the work, I mean, the legacy of Aldo Leopold is that he was able to put into very clear and concise terms very complicated things. That’s the gift that very few people have. There isn’t an Aldo Leopold out there right now, you know, we could really use one, you know. Too much harsh rhetoric, you know, is flying out there. The policies, the—the practice of self destruction which they’re using in all the political discourse now is quite accurate. Everybody’s into polarizing the other guy and then trying to achieve some sort of consensus, but it’s really a conciliation more than it is a consensus. And in the case of environmentalism right now, there needs to be some stabilizing force out there that just isn’t out there right now, I haven’t seen it and I look, that takes these issues and puts them into a clear perspective. Anybody who hasn’t read the Sand County Almanac, you know, ought to pick up a couple—pick up a couple of copies, keep one and give one to a friend. We’ve been—I’ve been doing that for years. I buy these by the dozens and anybody that looks like they might have a bit of a—an environmental awakening about to—to happen in them, I hand them a copy of that book because it’s—it’s a book that—about hands-on conservation back when conservation was the word. You know, now the word’s become environmentalism and it’s not a clear—it’s not a fair description of the people that are involved in the movement.
DT: Thanks for sharing your message, I think that it’s meaningful for us and I appreciate you spending time with us.
1:01:37 – 2081
WK: Sure, absolutely.
DT: Thank you.
End of reel 2081.
End of interview with Walt Kittelberger.