As part of their plan to continue to promote local agriculture and aquaculture, member and prospective members of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture celebrate its 20th Annual Crawfish Boil Thursday night.
“This event serves a dual purpose for us,” Chamber Executive Director Mitch Thames said. “We want the community to be aware of the significance of agriculture and aquaculture in the county. That is why we have kept ‘Agriculture’ in the name; it stresses its importance to the local economy.
“Second, we requested that the existing chamber members invite prospective members to the event. We had our staff there to answer any questions from likely candidates and even had chamber membership forms so it would be one-stop shopping for those wanting to join the chamber. This summer, we will also be holding a chamber membership drive.”
The importance of the chamber extends way beyond what the group can do to help promote a local business or even the local business environment.
“The resources available through the chamber helped (Matagorda County Judge) Nate McDonald and myself to fight the EPA (to allow the county to avoid non-attainment status for its air quality. That status was considered an important selling point for the TenarisBayCity Project.) It has allowed us to work with the Lower Colorado River Authority on water issues, particularly during the current drought.
“Becoming a chamber member is an investment in the community. It has allowed us to put together an economic development team that worked with Tenaris officials as well as working to recruit other industries and business to the area. And it has allowed us to work on a number of quality of life issues such as youth recreational facilities.”
While the guest list was comprised of chamber and potential chamber members, the cost of the event was covered by contributions from the event’s sponsors, Thames said. Those contributions allow the chamber to retain its resources for promoting and expanding the community.
“But the event is important in that it is a fun opportunity for the members to get together and celebrate what we are doing for the community,” Thames said.
The meal for the evening, which included crawfish, gulf shrimp, farm-raised catfish along with corn and potatoes, was prepared by several chamber members. And it also featured as much local produce as possible.
“Our first choice is always going to be home-grown agriculture products,” Thames said. “This year we had to go to HEB, a strong chamber member, for the crawfish. In the past, we obtained the crawfish from Cornelius Crawfish in Wadsworth, but due to the drought their crop wasn’t quite ready in time this year.
“We use locally harvested gulf shrimp and we get our catfish from Bowers’ Farm in Palacios. We celebrate local producers by featuring their products each year.”
An industry that was introduced during the 70s, Thames admitted aquaculture has seen a downturn in recent years but is still an important part of the economy.
“Imports from other countries have had a significant impact on local production,” Thames said. “And we used to have a processing plant in Markham, but it has closed down. Shipping costs for aquaculture are expensive because the fish have to be delivered alive for processing and now we have to ship it as far away as Mississippi for processing.
“At one time, we had up to seven species that were being raised here,” he said. “We still have a strong demand for farm raised redfish from the Houston restaurant industry and Bowers is still producing farm-raised catfish and shrimp, largely because they are diversified and have their own processing facility.”
Other factors have also contributed to the decline, which Thames said he hopes is just cyclical like the drought pattern we are currently experiencing.
“Getting feed for aquaculture is also difficult and another reason for the decline. We’ve tried to attract a producer to supply that feed in the past and will continue to do so in the future, just like we’re working to bring a new processing plant or find someone to open the existing plant. We do have feelers out.”
In addition to having to compete Mother Nature, Thames said the aquaculture industry in the U.S. is also having to battle foreign interests.
“Another concern is this county is importing more and more of its seafood,” he said. “That is something we are working with our representatives with in Congress. We worked with U.S. Representative Ron Paul and now are working with U.S. Representative Blake Farenthold to place limits on fish and shrimp imports, particularly from China. We are importing large amounts of product that are heavily subsided by their own countries so they can charge a low rate.
“In Austin, we’re encouraging the legislature to pass laws to encourage retailers to have to publish where their fish is coming from. We understand it will require restaurants to have to rework their menus, but people need to find out the source of their food, whether it comes form overseas versus being an American product. And we always encourage people to buy American.”