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Aerial view of Cedar Bayou, Texas

You don’t know what you’ve got, until it’s gone

Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport in Texas on 26 August 2017. The tropical storm choked the natural fish pass that links nearby Cedar Bayou to the Gulf of Mexico, putting at risk a local economy reliant on sport fishing and bird tourism.

Cedar Bayou local fishing guide David Nesloney

It is not the first time the channel has shut. In 1979, it was blocked off to protect the bay from an oil spill in gulf waters. The run stayed mostly in a closed state until 2014. Just prior to Harvey, local fishing guide David Nesloney spoke about how keeping the pass open is vital for the whole region.

David Nesloney

Back in the early 1960s, when I was about 10 years old, Cedar Bayou was a beautiful place to go fishing. In those days, you could fill tubs of trout in no time. You could catch all the live shrimp you wanted, and I’m talking big white shrimp. We used to take out nets at night and we’d fill up an ice chest in just a few casts.

Let me tell you a true story. One night, when I was a boy, I went floundering with a friend. From one end of Mesquite Bay to the mouth of Cedar Bayou, where it enters the gulf, we saw billions of blue crabs. And I mean billions. It’s hard to believe, I know. But I don’t need to exaggerate. I’ve been around here a long time.

In the early 1970s, I once saw a school of trout. I remember it like yesterday. There were more than 400, all a good size, swimming together in the crystal clear water. Seeing the trout was special. I’ve never seen a school of trout since.

Everything changed after the oil spill in 1979. The bay was closed and the waters became dormant. No crabs. No flounder. No trout. No redfish. Fishing declined every year. All the local marinas, hotels, motels and restaurants were affected. You’d go down to Mesquite Bay and it was like a ghost town because there was no trout, no redfish, no mullet. Just stagnant water. The salinity was so high in the water. Dead water is what I call it. It was like that for a long time.

Now that the bay is open again, it’s a thousand times better. You can catch a limit of trout everywhere. Not just in certain areas. I mean everywhere. The water is absolutely gorgeous. We could go out in my airboat right now and catch a limit of trout or redfish. We could go gigging flounder and catch the heck out of them.

Ask the shrimpers that trawl in the surrounding bays and they will all say it’s better than it has been for a long, long time. The blue crabs have returned too. Nobody set a trap for six or so years. Of course, the little crabs are the staple of the wintering whooping crane, which is an iconic bird in these parts. Our birding tours are a big show again, with five busy boats.

It’s done a heck of a deal for this whole community. You can’t find space at a boat ramp, hotel or restaurant on a Tuesday, let alone the weekend. Everybody is benefiting: the fishing guides like me, the oyster people, the shrimpers, flounder giggers, bird spotters, hoteliers, restaurant owners. And of course, all the folk who come here from Houston or San Antonio.

These past years have definitely increased my respect for nature. If you give her a chance, she comes back strong. But you can’t take her for granted. I wish I could get more young people to understand that. They don’t always appreciate what they have. I tell them you gotta take care of what you have. I say: Do me a favour. When you’re on the boat, look around and imagine you’re seeing this for the first time. Now, imagine it’s gone.

Believe me, you don’t want to lose this. I know what that feels like.

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