Howard Dodgen, executive secretary of the Texas Game and Fish Commission, said, "If the dredgers are given the go-ahead, the oyster industry will be destroyed for all time to come." In the summer of 1963 Texas Governor John Connally asked the legislature to combine the nine-man Texas Game and Fish Commission with the five-man Parks Commission. Sportsmen's clubs agreed, with the understanding that fishing-license fees would go to fishing facilities rather than into the parks, of which Texas has pitifully few. The legislature went along with Connally. A new Parks and Wildlife Commission was created. The three members were Will Odom of Austin, a geologist, engineer and independent oil and gas producer; James M. Dellinger of Corpus Christi, a road contractor who has used much oyster shell in construction; and A. W. Moursund, a Johnson City lawyer who serves as trustee for President Johnson's personal business affairs, has a direct telephone line to the White House and claims it is his job to keep the President's affairs secret from the President to avoid conflict of interest. Moursund's name is one of those, along with White House staffers and secret service agents, that appear on a mimeographed passenger list used on presidential helicopters.
Within two months after creation of the new commission, four dredging firms asked for unrestricted dredging rights. At the time it was estimated that the 120 million cubic yards of obtainable shell which remained would last about five years. Dodgen, who had been immediately retired by the new commission, was kept on as consultant but had no office, and his only duty was to pick up his paycheck once a month. Parks and Wildlife hearings on dredging were closed to the public. The
Houston Press, dying but still trying, said the Coastal Fisheries Function, a division of Parks and Wildlife, had submitted a report claiming that dredging within 1,500 feet of a live reef would kill oysters—which is what the Game and Fish Commission had said in September of 1962—but the report was never released. "The state government," says Justice Douglas in Farewell to Texas, a Vanishing Wilderness, "is solidly controlled by The Establishment." Any project that can be relegated to state agencies, says Douglas, can be controlled by the Establishment.
"I have repeatedly asked for the conclusions of the study supposedly made by the Parks and Wildlife Commission, but I couldn't get them until a recent Corps of Engineers hearing on the matter," says Eckhardt. "Then I got an old tentative report from Bob Singleton [former regional director of the Coastal Fisheries Function, now executive director of Parks and Wildlife] saying 1,200 feet was the closest a dredge should be allowed to a reef. That is the most arrogant board I ever ran into. Once I asked how much money the state took in from dredging royalties, and it took me a year to get an answer from Will Odom. It seems obvious that with all this secrecy the Parks and Wildlife conclusions are not on a sound basis. I voted for the creation of the new commission [when Eckhardt was a state representative] because I thought a merger of the two agencies would help. I didn't realize there was a bug under the chip."
While dredgers' requests were being considered in private by the Parks and Wildlife Commission, the outcry from oyster fishermen, sportsmen's clubs and conservationists was embarrassing Connally. A governor who takes a stand on a controversial issue in favor of the best interests of the people without considering the politics involved is a rare governor indeed; Connally had little to say about the oyster-dredging matter.
On October 11, 1963 a compromise was announced: the dredgers would be allowed to operate to within 300 feet of a live reef. The sportsmen and conservationists complained that such a rule would turn all oyster reefs into dead ones, and that the compromise was in effect granting the dredgers exactly what they had asked. In February 1964 the commission ruled that if dredgers were damaging reefs they would have to move back another 300 feet.
"The trouble with that is in the policing of it," says Eckhardt. "Such a thing is very difficult to control, and putting dredgers in charge of the safety of live oysters is like putting a possum in charge of the chicken coop. To visualize Galveston Bay, imagine an underwater Grand Canyon with long fingers extended in cuts and ridges. High points come up far from major structures of reefs as towhead reefs, which can be dredged. Cut off the towheads, keep moving in on the major structures, and you are gradually destroying the oysters. The statistical fact that oyster production is up in the bay area is meaningless. Since Hurricane Carla many boats from Louisiana are operating in Galveston Bay. The production per boat is down."
Last January, Moursund's term on the Parks and Wildlife Commission expired, and he was replaced by Harry Jersig, a brewery president from San Antonio who was responsible for the successful program to transplant rainbow trout to Texas waters. Jersig, described by one of his executives as a sportsman, statesman and all-round great fellow, has refused to make a statement about the dredging argument, having had it explained on his behalf that anything he said about the controversy would be so bland as to be not worth the ink it would take to print it. "There are sportsmen and then there are sportsmen," says State Senator A. R. Schwartz, a Democrat from Galveston. "Most of these sportsmen you run into have never spent much time along the Gulf and know little about it. When they talk about sport fishing they mean catching billfish out of $100,000 yachts. They don't realize how many people there are who have little skiffs or $10 rowboats and whose idea of sport fishing is catching trout or redfish in the bays." There are arguments about the effect dredging has on sea trout—the weakfish of the Texas coast—and redfish. Some say fishing is better, and some say it is worse. "I used to fish the bays as much as anybody," says Merle Bonneau, who has worked 32 years as a dredger for Parker Brothers & Co. "On a 15-day vacation I would fish 14 days. I haven't wet a line in the bay in three years now. The water is too oily. The fish are still fun to catch, but you can't eat them. I wouldn't eat a raw oyster that came out of Galveston Bay. Pollution comes down the ship channel from Houston or from the oil rigs or from sewage. But you don't read much about what the oil companies are doing to the bays. The oil-company big shots are the big sportsmen who'd rather blame everything on us."
The Galveston Bay area is, indeed, a cheerless sight. The water has the feel of lightweight motor oil. The Houston ship channel, which comes through Galveston Bay, is a 50-mile-long river of filth. More than half the bay is off limits for oyster fishing because of pollution. "The biggest source of pollution is sewage," says Terrence Leary of the Coastal Fisheries Function. "In the bay area there is a lot of sewage and few sewage-treatment plants. The waste goes through oysters and is toxic if the oysters are eaten raw. Tankers pumping their bilges at night are a problem, too, but spill from oil wells is rare. Sewage is the main thing to worry about."
"The bays are not polluted beyond repair," says Eckhardt. "If we can clean up the pollution, the oysters and fish will revive." The Federal Water Quality Act required the states to establish certain standards by June 30, although it is easy to be skeptical about the enforcement of those standards. Eckhardt blames part of the pollution on silt from dredges and has a photograph taken in orbit by an astronaut showing silt forming in the pass between Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island. "Our dredges were eight or 10 miles from there," says Parker. "That's not our silt. It comes from the rivers and is stirred up by currents."
Industries along the Gulf Coast do as much as dredgers to keep pressure on politicians to allow dredging to continue. Every year plants around Houston produce enough cement to build a concrete highway from that city to Los Angeles. Millions of dollars are invested in allied industries, and thousands of jobs are affected. "They claim they can't get along without shell," says Schwartz, "but they certainly can. What will they do when the shell runs out in a few years?" The answer is they will use limestone, which has roughly the same calcium-carbonate makeup as shell. There are almost unlimited limestone deposits in the Texas Hill Country, 175 miles from the dredges. Some have suggested facetiously that when shell runs out the Texas Hill Country will become the Texas Pit Country. "Maybe the dredgers are doing a bad thing," says one Texas political figure. "But when somebody is trying to put somebody else out of business I look to see who stands to profit. Who owns most of the limestone? Who will ship it? The polluters along the coast benefit by keeping the heat on the dredgers and off themselves, knowing the dredgers will continue to operate. Now watch and see who leaps in when the shell is gone."